Play: The Intrinsic Motivation for Childhood Learning

Randal A. McChesney


Everywhere I travel in my work in teacher education, serious questions arise about how to motivate children to learn and inspire them to treat each other with respect, regard, and dignity. Increasingly, these questions reveal helplessness and near desperation on the part of adults stymied in their contact with children. Whether wealthy, of moderate means, or disadvantaged, it seems we have somehow become bewildered, even afraid, when our children exhibit uneven or inadequate effort and motivation as they present themselves for schooling. What is most worrisome is that we seem to have reached for the most disparate and desperate of solutions, making any national approach to solving the problem nearly out of reach.

The problem is scarcely new. Tomes of information and opinion exist about motivation and effort. Alfie Kohn, Brafman and Brafman, Jane Healy, Joseph Chilton Pearce, Dr. Bruce Perry, Pintrich and Schunk . . . the list of those reporting the problem and posing ways to think about and solve the situation is lengthy and impressive. The views coalesce around three important and difficult-to-address conclusions:

1) The problem generally orients from the earliest years of childhood.

2) While such external rewards as over-praise, payment for achievement, or other coercive structures are alluring when immediately successful, these strategies can be ultimately addictive (Brafman and Brafman, 2009, et. al.).

3) External incentive can seriously undermine resiliency when children are faced with hard challenges or need to develop a life orientation other than one-upmanship or outright greed. Empathy, kindness, cooperation in group tasks, etc., constitute a more effective response to situations in which external reward cannot or ought not to be a goal.

The problem may be best revealed by those who are beyond schooling. I live in a high-density Microsoft/ area of Seattle. It is not uncommon for me to attend seminars or engage in casual conversations at the University of Washington regarding the state of workplace ethics and behavior. Across the board in work environments where demand for team thinking and cooperation is high comes this complaint from managers, human resource directors, and hiring executives: more and more young workers expect higher pay for less work, overestimate their workplace effort, are too apt to cut corners to get ahead, and, when asked to spend extra hours of work in accomplishing tasks, often ask, “What will I get for doing so?”

One software giant’s upper-division manager recently opined (referring to his young new hires), “They come from school wanting to know: ‘How soon can I get to a top-dollar job, and who do I meet to start that process?’ It’s a remarkable and unusual person who asks, instead, ‘What value can I add to this company (which might produce the salary I’m seeking)?’”

Back in school, debates are now raging over paying children with food, points for rewards, or, in the extreme, money for basic, considerate behavior once expected as a matter of human interaction, impulse management, or effort on tasks and tests. More than a few families these days offer monetary rewards for grades. And, as a trusted colleague and teaching friend reported to me, a school psychologist recently asked her elementary school faculty, “If you would not go to work without being paid, why would you go to school?”

The answer, obvious as it is, is not the subject of this article (although perhaps it ought to be). The benefits of social and work apprenticeship in societal status recognition are long-documented in anthropological research. When we examine the habits of the most effective learners (not necessarily the most gifted, talented, wealthy, etc.), it is apparent from the research that motivation is completely aligned with the habits of effective learning. Think of it as a sort of hierarchy, a pyramid.

Atop the pyramid is achievement. Whether in a grade, an ability to monitor one’s interactions with others, or the garnering of a coveted job, achievement for most of us is the result of sustained motivation over time and over distractions. Motivation is the sub-tier girder for transporting us in our achievement arc, whether it is to get home in a blizzard or find a way to get someone to be our friend. We succeed, we fail, we take a large step here, a small step there. The process can take hours, days, weeks, or years, depending on us, what we’re seeking to do, and how effective our strategies to get there are. Emotion, by the way, plays a very significant, and often ignored, prime-time role in our motivation, and is fascinating to explore and start to understand. Think of motivation as a sustaining wind blowing our attempts forward over the time we take to try to achieve any goal.

The infrastructure for effective achievement does not stop with motivation, however. Underpinning all sustained motivation is effort: the ability to add emotional, physical, mental, and willful “oomph” to our attempts to accomplish what we want. Sustained effort is the sure foundation upon which consistent motivation is built. And it is here, in the moment-by-moment, day-by-day orientation to tackling the tasks, distractions, failures, successes, and challenges of our lives, that we have the opportunity to build the “muscle” for our life-span achievement.

It is here that the brain-based research is perhaps the most clear on at least two points:

  • Motivation is most predictable, most assuredly available to us, when we most need it (as in those really hard-to-manage tasks and situations), and least roller-coastered when it comes from within us as an “interior locus of control” (Pintrich and Schunk). In simple terms, we are set up, from our earliest experiences of crawling around on the floor and reaching for everything in sight as we crawl, to do what we do for the sake of doing it first and being “paid” for it later—as a result of our effort and motivation not as a means of securing it. Again, we benefit from an abundance of life-span situations where appreciating experiences and achievements for their own intrinsic value is an assumption in our lives.
  • Our motivation is best supported when we believe that effort, rather than natural or innate talent, helps us accomplish things. If we learn from the earliest age that immediately adding effort to anything not easy for us to get is likely to get us through (“If at first you don’t succeed, don’t give up; you can do it!”), we are far more predictable and reliable partners when the going gets tough. It also tends to make us tougher when the going gets tough (resiliency), and more likely to act altruistically in situations where doing the right thing may, in fact, cost us something.

Achievement over our life-span is best assured—particularly in tasks that don’t lend themselves to being “paid” (leadership quality, teamwork, sharing and building on ideas, tasks requiring an emotional component or sympathy/empathy)—when we are used to feeling self-satisfaction that we did our best, that we will keep trying when things get hard, and that we can—and should—call on others for help when we can’t pull the load alone.

Where, then, does the research point us in securing this for our children from their earliest years? Play. This should not come as a surprise to anyone who has encountered the play state in children. Every single, solitary characteristic of play (visible, by the way, in fMRI images, if you require such evidence) points to effective motivation and effort orientation. And play draws us inevitably into situations in which we “do stuff” simply for the reward of enjoying how it turned out (think: building a sand castle at the beach or your local sand-pile, hiking to the very top of that hill over there, walking around the block two extra laps, taking in the neighbor’s garbage can, saying “I’m sorry” first), time and time again. In fact, this is the very definition of play.

Many of us are bewildered by play: How do we do it? What good is play in teaching children anything? The answer to the first question is simple: observe a child who is at a beach or in a sand box, or who has just appropriated an unused cardboard box (TV turned off, please). Sit back, watch, and wonder . . .

Play is also, to a certain degree, a learned behavior. We actually get better at play by playing with others who really know their stuff. There are high-quality groups expert at promoting and provoking childhood play: I would start with the Brain Gym program and our own work with Education Through Music (, among others. These resources are steeped in the understanding of play, provide high-quality experiences in genuine play for children across ages and cultures in America, and, most important for me, are nonprofit in their orientation. Think of it as “playing” even at business!

The second question, What good is play in teaching children anything? is highly common in a culture of quid pro quo such as ours increasingly becomes. This question, of course, generally misses the crucial developmental nature of play itself. Suffice it to say, for the moment, that the answer is also well documented (start with Stuart Brown’s Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul). The vast neural architecture each child is building for a lifetime of achievement and societal import demands a deeply respectful response to both its complexity and its enormous possibility. The role of play in this cannot be overstated . . . and is, for now, a conversation for another time.

© 2013 by Randal McChesney. All Rights Reserved.


Paul and Gail – Reflections on 2012

This momentous year has turned out to be an exciting and creative time! Among many other new projects, we’re pleased to be preparing this Hearts at Play website where you’ve now landed. You’ll find it to be a valuable resource for parents, students, educators, and all others exploring the flourishing field of learning through movement.

As always, we’re meeting with friends old and new who come to us for private balancing sessions. We’re also developing yet another book, and have recently contributed a chapter to learning expert Pat Wyman’s multi-modality Amazing Grades: 101 Best Ways to Improve Your Grades Faster.


Besides all this, we’re enjoying teaching close to home. Our professional courses this year, taught at our offices in Ventura, California, have included three 10-day retreats that brought together students from 14 countries—some as far away as Europe and the Asian Pacific—to learn cooperatively and experientially. Joni Wirsing, our office manager, takes great pride in helping students feel at home, making sure they have the materials they need, and providing course refreshments. Students of the retreats are calling these opportunities a great, community-building way to learn.

This year’s roster of courses included in our retreats:

  • Brain Gym® 101: Balance for Daily Life
  • Educational Kinesiology in Depth: The Seven Dimensions of Intelligence
  • Total Core Repatterning; Movement Reeducation
  • The Brain Gym® Teacher Practicum
  • Creative Vision
  • The annual Optimal Brain Organization Teacher Training

We also got to enjoy the coziness of teaching for three days at our Ventura home, where we offered Double Doodle Play: A Window to Whole-Brain Vision, along with its two-day Teacher Training—made festive by a potluck featuring Paul’s Pumpkin Soup.  Our students are always delightful people who bring out the best in us.





As holiday festivities begin, we feel a deep gratitude for this work that we so love, and for our colleagues around the world who join with us in carrying it on. And, on this Hearts at Play site, we thank our editor, Sonia Nordenson; web designer, John Hargrove; and assistant blog writer, Brynna Hargrove, along with our own lively muses, for the vision, color, and playfulness that provide fun new ways to share our work, studies, and discoveries with you!

Happy family celebrations to all, and we hope to see you in a workshop in the New Year!


© 2012 by Paul and Gail Dennison. All Rights Reserved.

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