Nature’s Innate Strategy for Brain Development is PLAY

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July 3, 2022
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September 14, 2022

By Dr Melodie de Jager.

Have you recently watched puppies, lion cubs and human babies at play? Obviously, not all playing together. It is quite uncanny to note how alike their play really is.

PLAY is an advanced skill and relies on the maturity of different parts of the brain and body system. Different parts of the brain and body need to develop before they share circuits and form systems that enables a child to learn playfully. All living creatures know instinctively what they need to develop and do not have to rely on their parents to teach them how to develop. Yes, rarely they may need a nudge, but generally nature takes care of its young with the help of a reflex system (more about this later).

When it comes to the human baby – the creature with the sophisticated brain, their development follows a similar pattern to that of animals, it just takes them much longer. That is the reason why some researchers speculate that the human baby is born 18 months too early when compared to other creature’s level of independence a few hours after birth.

The ‘premature birth’ is due to at least two factors:

  • The human baby has such a big cranium to safely house their advanced brain
  • The female pelvis is flexible but only to the extent that a baby needs be born by 42 weeks to pass safely through the birth canal.

This leaves the baby utterly and completely vulnerable and dependent on a caring adult to survive and in time to thrive outside the womb.

Let’s talk about the essential development of the brain and body before we talk about PLAY.


At birth babies are instinctively drawn close to their mom using their senses of smell, touch and direction. They seek closeness to feel as safe and secure as they’ve felt in utero and that is why skin-on-skin offers the best brain development in the early days.

Bonding is brain development 101

What we can’t see during bonding, is the brain at its best making connections between brain cells and strengthening these connections. Every millisecond of touch fused with mom’s reassuring body odour is not only pleasurable, it also myelinates (protects) the circuits of the brain involved with a life-long ability to cope with uncertainty, change, the ability to adapt and stress.


You may wonder what bonding has to do with play. A baby needs to attach (bond) before baby can detach (play). What is even more fascinating is that bonding jumpstarts the entire emotional system in the brain. This system involves different brain structures and the production of oxytocin, the love hormone as well as serotonin the neurotransmitter association with mood, sleep and digestion.

Bonding creates a safe space from where a new-born can sense its environment to learn and venture away from the safety and predictability of mom, to play. The neuroscientist David Eagleman says the brain is a prediction-making machine. When the baby’s brain unconsciously predicts that mom will be there when they cry or show discomfort through their movement, baby’s parasympathetic response kicks in that brings a state of calm, rest, digest and connect in its wake.


With the help of the senses the brain makes internal representations of what is out there to guide us to make choices that will enable us to navigate safely through life. If all that is out there come at a new-born at the same time, it would hit their immature nervous system like a tsunami. Without being told or taught, a baby’s instinctive sympathetic response would kick in to communicate they are in fight or flight mode, not in calm, digest and connect mode right now.

As can be seen in the two pictures above a new-born can communicate and do so with the help of movement and crying to say: “Comfort me, NOW, or I will have to continue to cry and fidget, battle to latch and feed, and keep you awake to draw your attention, because I can’t rest and digest when I feel threatened or unsafe”.

Nature protects new-borns from sensory-overload with strongly developed senses of proximity: touch, smell, taste and direction. The more advanced senses of hearing and sight are less developed at birth to give the senses of proximity or closeness a head start to foster bonding. Do not be fooled into thinking a new-born can’t hear, they can, but in a similar muted way as in utero.

What about the eyes, can they see? Yes, but not clearly at first. The eyes of a new-born see as clearly as you do when you try to look through a steamed-up shower door. You can spot silhouettes and movement when there is sufficient contrast and something shiny also draws attention. That is why eye-contact with a new-born baby is instinctive during feeding to focus those wandering eyes that need near point focus to align, work together and prevent squinting.

Once the last bit of amniotic fluid has drained from their ears babies start hearing with greater clarity, but the eyes take their time to develop. The eyes are constantly hard at work firing up brain cells in the seeing part of the brain through a process called neurogenesis, but the eyes need to wait for a strong and stable head and a stable body, a few months later, for the Vestibular Ocular Reflex (VOR) to signal that baby’s senses of balance (vestibular) and eyes (ocular) are ready to see and for baby to move further afield. This brain-body developmental milestone often coincides with the transitioning from unsupported sitting to crawling on all fours.


At this stage a baby engages with their environment with exploratory play in a stop-start manner until something new draws their attention. This kind of play is not spectacular. It is subtle and needs a wide-awake adult to notice baby’s need and place objects near enough for baby to find (attention) and explore (concentration). Developmentally they can’t concentrate for longer than a few seconds, but it is okay as this stop-start tendency triggers the stop-start neurons to become masters at driving the life-long skills needed for initiative, creativity and innovation (start) and control (stop).

What an ingenious work of art!


Neither the senses and the brain nor the baby’s muscles would have unfolded so elegantly if it wasn’t for the internal drivers of human brain-body development called reflexes. Various reflexes have different functions but in this article we focus on reflexes that drive brain development in a sequential manner.

The sequential unfolding and maturation of the brain and body is important to establish a stable foundation for all future development. As Charles Krebbs says:

The human body was designed to move. It is the early experiences that lay the foundation of what follows.

Intrauterine and primitive reflexes are instinctive, fast, automatic, uncontrolled and unplanned muscle movement with the purpose of maturing the nervous system, enabling an infant to survive, to develop and to thrive. These reflexes appear in a progressive sequence from the most basic to the more complex, a process where cell migration, myelination, and synaptogenesis are rampant. These reflexes further prepare babies:

  • to sense (senses) and to respond (muscles) to their environment inutero
  • to assist during birth
  • to feed
  • to sense and to respond to their environment outside the uterus
  • to move against gravity.

The intrauterine and primitive reflexes discussed in this article follow a systematic pattern which allows a baby to gradually transition from reflexive and involuntary movement  to voluntary movement. When movement is still reflexive PLAY is a hit and miss situation, but once the cortical control centres of the brain have engaged, a baby can play at will.

The pattern of reflex expression is designed with a baby’s entire brain and body development in mind. Each reflex is found to:

  • emerge to jump-start a part of the whole neuro-chemical system
  • sensitise the baby’s senses and mobilise their muscles
  • develop a specific neuro-chemical circuit
  • integrate the new circuit with earlier circuits
  • inhibit during the first few months of life to re-emerge later in life when injury or trauma impacted on the circuits.

The academic researcher Ewa Gieysztor explains that the process of reflex integration consists of the transition from reflexive movement (a brain stem reflex response), to voluntary movement (a cortically controlled response). Hence, while a baby still moves in a reflexive manner during the first few months in life, PLAY tends more towards random and incidental (a brain stem reflex response) than purposeful (a cortically controlled response).

When infant reflexes fail to integrate approximately 6 months after full term pregnancy, toddlers and older children, even adults, may stay tethered to the reflexive brainstem instead of progressing to the cortex or thinking brain. The brainstem is designed for repetitive movement to support rhythmic and cyclical functions such as heartbeat, breathing, sleep/wake, thirst and hunger cycles. For PLAY (a child) and PERFROMANCE (an adult) the thinking part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex needs to engage to develop creativity, decision making and innovation.

A child at PLAY is a child at work – Maria Montessori


At the Mind Moves Institute we have found a baby’s brain and sensory-motor (muscle) development coincide with the emergence of selected intrauterine and primitive reflexes. We have further found the sequence of reflex expression first presents the senses of proximity: proprioception and touch, the vestibular sense and the senses of smell and taste followed by the more advanced and paired senses of hearing and sight.

The sequence of motor development follows the general growth pattern from top to bottom (cephalocaudal) and from inside to out (proximodistal).

The functional model below was developed at the Mind Moves Institute to represent the orchestration of the increasingly sophisticated brain-body system in readiness for PLAY.



Primitive reflexes are essential in normal development. Response to these reflexes prepares the child for progressive development – Mary Fiorentino

The reflexes involved are found to be the withdrawal reflex (proprioception and touch), also called the fear paralysis reflex by some researchers, the Moro reflex (vestibular system), the rooting and sucking reflex (smell and taste), the Tonic Labyrinthine Reflex (vestibular and hearing systems) and the Asymmetrical Tonic Neck Reflex (vestibular and visual systems).


Each of these reflexes need to merge and integrate with the circuits and networks established by the previous reflex, before it can integrate and inhibit to free the baby, child or adult from survival patterns of behaviour to engage their prefrontal cortex to adapt (learn) and thrive.

The prefrontal cortex is the seat of learning and executive function. For a baby six or more years down the line learning will be symbolic (using symbols abc, 123, +=?), but for the first few years playful learning is concrete. Concrete play means playing with real things like your toes, pots and spoons, siblings and dogs, not books or screens. Neurologist Etienne van der Walt words it beautifully when he says little children make the big world small by playing with small cars and cups and dolls, while learning how to navigate real life.

If bonding is brain development 101, PLAY is a master class in brain development – Dr Melodie de Jager


Let’s first reflect: Once a baby has bonded and feels safe and secure in knowing they belong; every intrauterine and primitive reflex has developed their respective circuits, merged and integrated with other brain and body circuits to developed a sophisticated sensory-motor system and reached each infant milestone in sequence, a baby should be secreting feel-good hormones on a regular basis – all is well in their world. The baby is now ‘king of their castle’ and neuro-physiologically primed to venture further afield…on their own (more about Me and WE later).

PLAY is movement – Dr Melodie de Jager

Neuroscientist and self-professed movement chauvinist Daniel Volpert words this eloquently when he says:

We don’t have a brain to think. We have a brain to move. The brain is designed to make complex movement. You cannot impact on the world without movement. Sweating is the only exception.

Neurologist Oleg Efimov showed that moving and thinking cannot be disconnected, they are different expressions of embodied cognition. When babies and children PLAY they move and when they move they think, and when they think they move in increasingly more complex creative, innovative, precise and goal-specific ways in a perpetual self-feeding loop.

That is why young children need to MOVE their whole bodies when they LEARN playfully. Sally Goddard adds that movement is a child’s first language, and the sooner a toddler and child becomes proficient in their first language (movement), the quicker he or she will develop other ways to express, to explore and to develop.

The inherent purpose of PLAY is not just movement and it is not pleasure. Pleasure is a consequence of play (more later). The innate purpose of play is skills development. Puppies, lion cubs and young children all love rough and tumble play. That is how they develop the physical skills that will enable them to avoid threats and move confidently towards their goals throughout life. They develop laterality, muscle tone, crossing the midline, rhythm, timing, perceptual-motor skills, coordination and much more during rough and tumble play.

But PLAY doesn’t only hone physical skills it also hones emotional skills when a child learns that a sense of ME is important. Who am I? What am I good at? What do I need to learn? Self-awareness fosters a powerful sense of ME, but being part of a game doesn’t mean they do what you say or things go your way every time, ouch! Winning is not everything, ouch! ouch! While playing and running with ‘their tribe’ one of the greatest secrets of life is revealed during PLAY – when you run alone you run fast (and burnout). When you run together you run far (and thrive more often).

When a ME-identity transforms in an identity of me as a valuable member of the tribe, the WE-identity heralds the gains of social development. As movement and thought cannot be disconnected, so a WE-identity cannot be disconnected from cognitive development and the gift of collective intelligence. Collective intelligence celebrates the diversity of contexts in which adults honed their cognitive skills while they were still babies and children. This enables them to explore and harness their combined creativity and thinking skills and adjust their hearts, minds and actions in a group or team, to get closer to what they want to achieve as adults.

Game whisperer Alexandre Maryka says during play,

the balancing element of pleasure is the effort required to obtain it

Part of this effort involves transforming a sense of ME as most powerful to WE as exponentially more powerful. Nature is readily available to reward this life-saving transformation with serotonin a life-giving hormone involved in the rest, digest and connect state. We are rewarded for being true to nature when we participate and belong. Being an observer and feeling left-out is said to fire the same pain circuits in the brain as when physical pain is inflicted.

Adults have a choice: hack it on your own and taste the fruits of fight&flight to survive or go together and be calm&digest&connect and thrive.


In the early years PLAY is more solitary while the baby, toddler or child is still discovering their sense of ME – What have I got? What can I do with it? How else can I do this? This is playful learning at its best without the pressure to perform, while absorbing and mimicking the social skills of his or her culture.

The first three years are age-appropriately self-centred to develop a sense of ME. If, health permitting, the need to establish a sense of ME is not satisfied within the first few years of life with:

  • sufficient space
  • opportunity and
  • a caring adult(s) who, on demand, acknowledge, affirm, comfort, correct and navigate the child through their environment and culture

then they may stay tethered to this phase with a ME-ME-ME way of being in the world. Seldom satisfied. Seldom at fault. Always something or somebody else’s fault. Needy and clingy waiting for the right person, thing, job or substance to fix them.

PLAY is a child at work.

When we as a collective humanity step back from knowing and doing, to marvel at nature and celebrate the mysteries of the mind, and instinct, we would realise we need to revere nature, applaud our children and protect PLAYFUL LEARNING with all we’ve got.

Our children are the future.



De Jager, M. 2019. brain development MILESTONES & learning. Johannesburg: Mind Moves Institute

De Jager, M. PLAY LEARN GROW. 2017. Johannesburg: Mind Moves Institute

De Jager, M. PLAY LEARN KNOW. 2013. Welgemoed: Metz Press

Fiorentino, M.R. 1980. Normal and Abnormal Development: The Influence of Primitive Reflexes on Motor Development. Illinois: Charles C Thomas Pub Ltd

Goddard, S. 2002.  Reflexes, learning and behaviour. Oregon: Fern Ridge Press

Montessori, M. 1909. The Montessori Method. Florance: Ermanno Loescher.


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