April 17, 2019 by Dr. Shane Dixon
Neuroscience of Play
I have a five-year-old. He is chock-full of energy, excited and curious about everything, and he loves to play. All. Day. Long. From the moment he gets up until the moment he drops into bed at the end of the day, it seems his sole purpose in life is to play. Luckily for my son, it turns out that play is a very good thing for the brain. When you play, the pre-frontal cortex (right behind your eyes and forehead), lights up. Studies demonstrate that engaging in play increases the number of neurons you have, which measurably increases the size of the pre-frontal cortex. In other words, when you play, your brain is literally getting bigger.
The pre-frontal cortex also has a significant role in helping you be a socially aware human. You know, it helps you figure out when your zipper might be down, or warns you when you decide to wear stripes with plaid. It even helps you make judgments about what you want to do or say. Overall, it may be that play (and especially dramatic and imaginative play) is an important intermediary step to becoming a normal, socialized human being. Over time, play, or the lack of it, may have some serious social consequences. Speaking of social consequences, recently, while talking to a family friend suffering from acne, my son stated flatly, "What's wrong with your face?" Sigh. We will have to work on that (or maybe play with that?)
Anyway. Another fascinating part of the science of play is the motivational aspects involved. Play, as no scientist needs to tell us, is fun, and fun is motivational. Let’s dig a little deeper into the science behind what is happening here. Through the help of your limbic system (found in the midbrain), as you play, endorphins such as oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin are released into your body. This chemical combination isn’t just a feel-good cocktail but has been linked to increased motivation and focus. In addition, among this group of chemicals is norepinephrine, which scientists note that, during play, increases brain plasticity (a fancy way of saying that your brain is more likely to remember). Interestingly, an important chemical that is left off the list is cortisol. While play releases epinephrine, norepinephrine, oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin, the hormone cortisol isn’t elevated during play (although it shows up in a lot of other circumstances). Typically cortisol increases during moments of heightened risk or danger, which is your brain’s way of sending you a stress-induced fight or flight signal. Why might this matter? Well, if done right, play gives all the benefits of motivation and focus without the disadvantages of anxiety. As I like to say it, play allows you to focus, but not because you are afraid you will get eaten by a bear.
Now, there is a special kind of play that, to invent an academic term, I refer to as “transgressive teaching” (why invent such a term? Keep reading). Transgressive (from the word transgress meaning to sin against or break a law) means that you are inviting students to, honest to goodness, break a few rules, and do the unexpected. By so doing, you are inviting students to light up the pre-frontal cortex and engage the limbic system. This is all just a way of saying that I actually ENCOURAGE my students to be, well, just a little bit naughty (you may bite lower lip here). If your administrators ever catch you standing on your head doing a wall push up, throwing off your shoes and dancing the samba, or inviting students to pretend they are fish (and yes, I have done all these things) you can always tell them that, “transgressive teaching strategies engage the students’ prefrontal cortex.”
So how do you encourage naughtiness in the classroom without getting thrown in jail? Three tips. First, try to look for ways to break a common convention, especially the ones that you can see are weighing students down. Here are two examples of typical classroom conventions:
Conventional Method #1: students usually sit inside a classroom in their chairs
Transgressive Methods: Sit outside on picnic blankets, sit back to back, go on a tour, have students move around different “stations” in a room.
Conventional Method #2: Students answer by raising hands
Transgressive Methods: Students answer questions after they are thrown a bean bag, after catching an M&M in their mouths, or after being anointed by the teacher with a magic marker.
Another way to engage in overall naughtiness is to juxtapose two disparate elements. Often I do this by juxtaposing the formal and informal aspects of learning. For example, if students are required to write a boring, process essay, I might provide a ridiculous example, and maybe even invite students to practice writing a formal paper with irreverent topics. For example:
Conventional Process Essay Topics: How a Bill Becomes a Law, How Credit Works
Transgressive Topics: How to Cheat on a Test and Not Get Caught, How to Be as Popular as Me, How to Waste Time Effectively
You will find that the contrast, if done right, boosts creativity among students and helps them to actually LEARN the formal conventions with more clarity. As Pablo Picasso famously quipped, you must “learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”
Finally, never forget the importance of working with a fellow educator. I am not referring to the act of collaboration (that is way too conventional a word!) No, when you find a like-minded educator, one who believes in the principles of transgressive curriculum, you’ll discover that you aren’t collaborating as much as conspiring. In other words, there is something exciting, outside-the-box, and innovative in your approach. If it is the right idea, you’ll find yourself naturally planning—scheming—to make activities educationally sound and devilishly fun. Some of my best ideas are not my own, and even when they are, often a good conspirator will put the finishing touches on a great idea.
Click here for a free resource from fellow transgressive teacher, Dave Burgess. He gives tips for you to “teach like a pirate.” Genius.
Click here for my bestseller 100 TESOL Activities (transgressive ideas galore!)
Transgressive Learning Outside the Classroom
One last thought about the brain. Many neuroscientists, because of their work discovering the intricacies of the limbic brain, have gone on to suggest that, because of its role in motivation through the feel-good chemical cocktails previously mentioned, we might think of this part of your brain as your “feeling brain,” whereas other areas are more responsible for gathering and processing information (your “thinking brain”). As a language professional, I have often noticed how teachers try to engage the thinking brain without paying at least equal attention to its very important companion. Techniques that engage both parts of the brain are extremely important for your success. In fact, some studies suggest that language learning fails about 98% of the time. 98%! In my professional view, a major reason for that failure is that educators teach language as if it were any other class subject, failing to recognize the need for the social and motivational components. Grammar worksheets don’t teach English, a rich, motivational classroom environment supported by language learning strategies does.
Now, what if you don’t have a classroom? What if, for example, you are learning a language on your own, or helping someone else learn a language? Could you use the idea of “being transgressive” to help yourself? I’m so glad I pretended you asked. Yes. Absolutely.
Here are some ideas for using transgressive principles at any time in any place for language learning:
- Use food as a tool. Adding food to study can be quite transgressive. Learn about food, learn while eating food, heck, I don’t even care if you speak to food.
- Use movement. For example, try making flashcards that use your entire body instead of a dictionary definition.
- Use people (okay, that sounded terrible, but stay with me). I like to send notes to people who don’t speak the language I am learning. Often they are confused, which makes this activity extra transgressive. Fun fact: they usually write back.
- Flirt. Consider using romance as a way to spice up language learning. You might write love poems, or read a romance book. Here is a simple challenge to all you romantics: write one love text every day for 7 days to a special someone.
- Go on language missions. If you haven’t heard yet, in my online course (with co-developer Dr. Justin Shewell) I teach you the concept of a “language mission,” meaning that we will send you off on exciting adventures to complete challenges and tasks that are motivationally rewarding and help you conquer a language. Be prepared. It is quite the ride.
Ready to go on an adventure?
- Join our Facebook group. (We share free resources and tips for language warriors all the time!)
- Enroll in our online course (get our special offer just for our readers!)
- Read 50 Ways to Learn a Language (it's full of ideas for small language adventures!) Need a random tip? Try the randomizer.
- Get a punch in the face.
- Watch Justin do the samba in a hula skirt.