Play, Variability and Motor Learning

ronaldinho_691458n1I recently had the privilege of attending a continuing education class at Athletes Performance in Arizona, which is one of the top athletic training facilities in the country, run by Mark Verstegen. It’s a beautiful facility, with a nice grass field, an amazing workout room, and lots of elite athletes walking around and training. It was a very fun atmosphere and I was all geeked out.

There are many things that I would like to write about from this experience (including the excellent DNS classes that I was attending while there), but for now I just wanted to make a few brief observations about the way the athletes spent their time.

There was at least some serious training going on, but there was also a lot of low intensity playful activity. A soccer player was spending a lot of time juggling and doing tricks. Baseball players would sometimes kick around the soccer ball. And the soccer player would occasionally throw the baseball. And I saw lots of athletes playing frisbee. It seems that these top-notch elite athletes, whose life is working at a particular sport, can still can find plenty of time to engage in playful, seemingly frivolous activity. And with that idea in mind, I am attaching below an update of a previous article I did on play, as well as some material adapted from my upcoming book. It explains why playful detours can sometimes lead to a quicker arrival time at movement goals than straight ahead work.

Play and Motor Learning

Children don’t learn to move through work or instruction. Instead, they learn through play, exploration and experimentation.

Play is commonly defined as an activity that is fun, voluntary, improvisational, absorbing, and has no obvious purpose. It can also be understood as the opposite of boring work – something that is done with a specific outcome in mind, under the stress of need, and that takes will power to continue.

In the natural world, play is an essential part of any significant learning process. All intelligent animals play. The more intelligent the animal, the more it plays. Chimps, dolphins, and dogs play more than snakes, turtles and bugs. Humans are the smartest animals and play the most.

Animals engage in the most play when their educational demands are highest. For example, when it’s time to learn the physical skills necessary for hunting, or the social skills required for mating and group membership – these are the exact times when the animal naturally engages in the most play. When an intelligent animal is deprived of play, it will not develop into a normal adult, and will instead experience severe problems with learning and social behavior.

Based on these facts, it is obvious that play is integral to learning, and that play is the best solution to difficult education problems that evolution has found. In this sense, play presents a bit of a paradox. Why is it so effective in achieving educational outcomes, when its very nature is to ignore the outcome and focus on the process? How does it help us arrive at a destination quickly when it encourages detours? Why does play foster learning? Here are some theories proposed by the experts.

Neuroplasticity and play

Play involves focused attention, it is rewarding, and it promotes the development of novel movement and perceptions. These are all important preconditions for neuroplasticity. Play also activates brain derived neurotrophic factor, which stimulates nerve growth. Play seems to have a more widespread effect on the brain than work. Rats who are forced to work at finding their way through a maze experience neural growth in the one specific area of the brain responsible for this task. By contrast, rats placed in an enhanced play environment experience global brain benefits – they have thicker cortexes.

Play helps you move outside the box

Some researchers believe that mammals evolved a motivation to play because it introduces an element of randomness or creativity into problem solving. Because play values variation and novelty as an end in itself, engaging in play is a way to ensure that we are always experimenting with new options and thinking outside the box.

In the context of movement, play can be thought of as a safeguard against habitually using the same movement pattern to solve a particular motor challenge, and ignoring potentially better solutions. Habits are encoded in the brain as facilitated patterns of neural activity. The more we engage in a certain movement pattern, the more facilitated that pattern will become.

The facilitation of a neural pathway that results from repetition can be likened to carving a groove through snow while skiing down a mountain. On the first pass, all pathways down the mountain are equally likely. But on the second pass, you are more likely to fall into the groove created on the first pass. The more times the same path is traveled, the deeper the groove becomes and the easier it is to follow that same pathway.

What does this have to do with play? A very workmanlike or goal oriented mindset toward movement will encourage use of the most well grooved motor patterns. A more playful process can encourage exploration of alternative patterns, some of which might be more effective once they are practiced a few times.

Thus we can look at our motivation to play as a natural incentive to experiment with new solutions, even if they don’t appear superior at first glance. We could also look at play as a way to “return to the drawing board” or start over from scratch on a movement problem without preconceived notions about the right or wrong way to move.

Play develops resourcefulness and adaptability

Play theorists have also speculated that play may teach adaptability and resourcefulness by exposing us to a wide variety of novel circumstances. Again, to use the skiing down the mountain analogy, someone who is motivated to explore the whole mountain will expose themselves to many different pathways and terrains. This will promote a creativity and responsiveness that is useful in the real world, which always involves novel challenges.

Michael Merzenich believes that one of the major practical takeaways from his pioneering research into neuroplasticity is that “stereotypy is the enemy” and that the brain is best exercised with a variety of movements and challenges. For example, it is preferable to “move to a point in space in 100 different speeds in 100 different ways  … than to move 200 times in the same way to get to that point in space.”

Thus, in Merzenich’s view, proper movement training would not involve simply repeating the same motion over and over again in the same way. Exploration and variety are more important for real world value, because what the brain really wants is to be able to solve a task in a wide variety of circumstances.

Consider these ideas in the context of training the ability to lower your center of gravity to the ground. If you watch kids move from the floor to standing, you will see them select a different pathway almost every time. But if you watch adults train this movement in a gym, you will see one or maybe two ways to lower the center of gravity – a squat and a lunge. This is the stereotyped movement that Merzenich says is indicative of reduced capacity. Thus, one of the lessons from the science of play is that squatting in the exact same way each time you go to the gym is probably not the best way to optimize your squatting, or anything else.

Although there is very clearly an indispensable role for repetitive and sometimes boring drills in getting better at a specific skill, all elite movers attain their status not just through boring drudgery, but through playful creativity and exploration.


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11 Responses to Play, Variability and Motor Learning

  1. I try to toss around a ball with the kids or bump a volleyball with my wife whenever I can.. just getting my muscles to move in unison towards a common goal, certainly seems to do the body good.

  2. Nice work Todd. Unintentionally I somehow immersed myself in the topic of play, possibly from the influence of Dr. Kwame Brown. Your piece reflects the information I’ve come across pertaining to the vital importance of play in development from infant to adults. Play is generally considered more for physical development, but the irony is,it probably has as much influence on social interaction, psychology, behavior, etc. (i.e. non mvt based development).

    Barrett thanks for the book recommendation!

    • Hi Randy,

      I have heard that as well. Something about how animals who don’t rough and tumble play still have pretty good physical skills, but their social skills suck.

  3. Hi Todd,

    Great post and some key points that I’m intrigued by and still progressing my understanding of and I have a ton of questions.

    One thought: variability does seems to be key for the brain and also the motor system in general, but there must be a continuum and how much variability really is needed?

    For example:

    – Watch someone squat and they never follow the same path…
    – Watch someone on a knee/leg extension machine, and it may look like the same movement, but there will be a cycling of motor unit recruitment that occurs – I wonder, in 100 reps of this particular movement

    Play is important, as is exploring all of the variables joint ranges, length-tension relationships and number of joints being utilised (appropriately), that are available to us.

    However, what level of novel stimulus is required (considering Merzenich’s work)

    What do you think?

    At the other end of the scale, you may have already seen this re: forced exercise:
    “single exposure of rats to the forced-swimming stress decreased BDNF levels in the cortex”

    • Hi Michael,

      Good point. Variability is definitely not a “more is better” type of thing. If you want to get really good at something, variability is like salt or veggies, and hard work and repetition is the meat and potatoes.

      Further, as you point out in your squat example, there is a difference between small degrees of variability and larger ones (that I don’t really understand.) It shows up in brain waves, metabolic flexibility and heart rate as well. In these cases, optimal variability is small not large.

  4. I recently saw merzenich talk at anat baniels school, then started practicing the principles much more heavily (novelness, variation). Combined with theatre and acting games, I feel my coordination improving daily! Its all coming together. Can’t wait for your book!

  5. I love this idea, I do not know if you have read the book Free Play by Stephen Nachmanovitch. It is a book for improv artists but I think if you are doing your job right as a PT you are an improv artist yourself. I attached the article I wrote a few months ago about Free Play when I was working in Jamaica at a clinic ( It is inspiring to see other PT’s out there that have the same mindset when it comes to rehab, neuro, or orthopedic, everything is wired. I am happy I stumbled across your blog and look forward to following your work as I start off on my PT journey.

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