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The Right Brain Develops First: Why Play Is The Foundation For Academic Learning

By Vince Gowmon

Did you know that the right brain develops first? It does so by the time children are 4 years old. The left brain, on the other hand, doesn’t fully come online until children are approximately 7; that’s why the first seven years are recognized as such a critical period in child development.

The left brain’s functionality is one of language, numeracy, literacy, analysis, and time. It is the logical, calculating, planning, busy-bee part of us that keeps us anchored in the pragmatic world, and in the past and the future. The right brain, on the other hand, is responsible for empathy, intuition, imagination, and creativity. It is where we wonder, dream, connect, and come alive. Through the right brain we dwell in the space of no-time, in being absolutely present. The left brain is more interested in outcomes or product, while the right brain cares much more about process—the journey is what matters, not the destination.

There is one more vital piece to understand: The right brain connects us to our boundless sense of being. Being is primary—hence the right brain developing first; hence, human being, not human doing. The left brain is far more interested in doing. Young right-brain-dominant children, by contrast, are quite content just being.

“Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.”—Albert Einstein

Understanding this, we can better appreciate why play is so important in childhood learning and development, and why we need to be extra careful with the amount and timing of academic agendas we create for children. We need to take care in how much we emphasize product (what kids have accomplished at school) over process (who they are becoming, and what they feel in their explorations). That the right brain develops first is pertinent information for educators and parents regarding what is developmentally appropriate. Pushing literacy and numeracy on children before age 7 might be harmful to their developing brains. If they don’t have the capacity to use their academic minds in the ways that are being asked, children can gain what’s called “learned stupidity.” They believe themselves to be incapable and lose their natural desire to learn.

The push for academia on children is a symptom of a society that is left-brain-dominant, or forgetful of the wonderful playground that is the right brain. It’s an indicator that we feel safer within the literalness, control, and certainty of the left brain, far more than in the unquantifiable and mysterious nature the right brain connects us to.

You cannot measure the qualitative aspects of imagination, empathy, and intuition—but, of course, you can measure the practical, detail-oriented functions associated with the left brain. Yet the more we push those things that can be measured onto children, the more they will feel like they don’t measure up!

Let’s remember that life is less about the tools the left brain excels in and what we accomplish in this world. Rather, life is about being present and connecting with those you love, or those you don’t even know, as children do so freely.

A friend of mine described a recent experience that illustrates this: “Walking to the library this morning, I passed on the sidewalk a little child, maybe 2 years old, and his mother. As I neared, the child looked at me, his eyes so alive and present, and when I said ‘Hi,’ he stooped and picked up a soggy leaf from the ground and handed it to me. Oh, the abundance and beauty of this world!”

This is the gift of the right brain. While the left brain sunders life into pieces, the right brain unites. This is why babies sense no distinction between themselves and their environment. All is one!

“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.” —ALBERT EINSTEIN

These wise little teachers remind us, courtesy of their right brains, that life is about enjoying the little things, about enchantment and surprise; it’s about being present with another, offering them your gentle ear, and hearing between the lines—not just what is being said, which is what logic grasps. With the help of the right brain, we touch the hidden places in our hearts and in the hearts of others, those secret dimensions that give meaning to life.

The right brain is indeed the playground—or at least, it connects us to it. Let children dwell in this most natural state through their unstructured play, and all its derivatives such as doodling, curiosity, wonder, and imagination. People who have a healthy right brain can better use their left-brain tools in positive ways. That is the purpose of the logical left brain: to serve the right brain. Doing serves being. Being is the soil from which all our plans, details, and actions must flower if we are to experience personal fulfillment and truly contribute to the world.