Why Playful Learning is Effective for Kids

As a parent, understanding how our brain processes information and converts it into long-term memory and knowledge is essential to increase your kid’s brainpower. This knowledge can be used to adopt brain-friendly learning strategies when kids are learning about robotics for kids and coding for kids.

The brain gets sensory information from the environment. It responds differently to these inputs. Some inputs are immediately discarded, while others pass through the various brain filters. How your kid responds to these inputs from the environment will determine what gets their attention.
If you understand how the brain learns effectively, you can ensure that your kid responds to the most relevant sensory input from the environment and turns that into knowledge.

RAD Learning

The brain learns effectively through a three-step RAD learning system. Each of these steps is the filter in the brain. RAD stands for

1. Reticular Activating System (RAS)
2. Affective Filter in the Amygdala
3. Dopamine

Reticular Activating System (RAS) –

The RAS is the first filter, and it is located in the lower back of the brain. The attention activation switching system receives input from the nerve endings in the arms, legs, trunk, neck, face and internal organs. It selectively turns on the brain’s alertness to changes in the environment about sounds, sights, and smells that will impact survival.
Any information to pass on to the next level must catch RAS’s attention. For kids, anything to catch their attention should stimulate their RAS. RAS actively responds to unexpected events, novelty, and surprise, and by incorporating these elements in the sensory inputs, kids’ attention can be successfully engaged.

Affective Filter in Amygdala

Once the sensory input activates the RAS successfully, it moves on to the second filter called the limbic system, that comprises of the Amygdala and Hippocampus. The amygdala is the emotional filter in the brain, and it evaluates the emotional significance of any sensory input and its pleasure value.

It compares any new sensory input with previously stored similar data. The previous data is stored in areas called the sensory cortex, having a specialized area for each of the senses of hearing, touch, taste, vision, and smell.
For instance, when a kid sees candy, its sight connects with the visual cortex, and its sweet taste connects with the taste centres. From previous experience, the amygdala will evaluate the candy as something yummy with high pleasure value.

Inputs perceived as having high pleasure value are passed to the higher brain. On the other hand, if the amygdala perceives something as a threat or the kid feels stressed, the information is diverted to flight/fight centres. These centres can be activated by several things such as bullying in school, boredom and confusion.

The stimuli or the input is perceived as unfavourable and gets blocked from getting absorbed into the kid’s learning. The flight/fight centres can get activated by stressful experiences, and it will take up much of the nutrients and oxygen. A high activity level in the amygdala blocks information from moving on to the thinking brain. Therefore, any learning methodology must make the learning experience playful and stress-free.

When the kid is relaxed and comfortable, the amygdala passes the information on to the reflective, thinking brain. When the kid is stressed, the data is passed on to the non-thinking, reactive brain.

Also, when new inputs are compared with past experiences, knowledge and memories, the brain tries to form patterns and connections to consolidate old and new knowledge and memories. This consolidation happens in the hippocampus of the brain. This consolidation helps in the formation of long-term memory.

Dopamine

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with pleasurable experiences. It is called neurotransmitters because it helps carry information across the spaces that form when one nerve ending connects with another.

The brain also releases dopamine when it expects something pleasurable and rewarding to happen. A dopamine release increases sharp focus and memory formation. When learning activities are enjoyable, kids have longer attention spans and focus, owing to increased dopamine levels.

Learning experiences that can induce dopamine release include playing, exercise, novelty, a sense of achievement, personal interest etc.
When goals are set out of personal interest, kids get driven by the dopamine-pleasure response and build on their strengths to complete the task finally.

Transferring the Sensory Inputs to Memory

When any sensory input from the environment successfully passes through these three filters, it reaches the higher thinking brain, the logical part of the brain, or the component responsible for the executive function, including analysis, judgement, prioritizing, and decision-making.

Here the new information is actively processed and manipulated using problem-solving and analysis. Subsequently, it is transferred to long-term memory, which forms part of the child’s learning. It is then used by the child as a guideline for behaviour and to make predictions about the outcome of their behaviour.

When new memories get added to existing related information, it activates the already existing neural network and gets enlarged due to new connections between nerve cells. More extensive neural networks allow more efficient responses to the environments. The brain can relate further information more efficiently to existing one when there are more extensive neural networks. It’s a case where learning promotes more learning.

A Note on Playful Learning

It can be seen from above that any pleasurable learning experience, based on interesting topics and other positive experiences, will move to the higher brain. It generates positive feelings and dopamine flow, which allows the learning to be absorbed.Playful learning exhibits all these qualities.

It highlights the importance of playful learning, where learning is combined with play, that keeps the kids engrossed without them losing attention and focus. As parents, knowing this should lead you to generate sensory inputs that are aimed at influencing the three filters positively.