November 25, 2008

Imitation on the Playground: Learning and Motor Skills

By J.C. Boushh

We've all heard the saying "imitation is the greatest form of flattery," and now it may also be the greatest source of learning for the brain. Consider how infants begin to acquire specific motor skills. "If you stick out your tongue to an observant infant shortly after birth, the probability is high that he or she will reciprocate the behavior" (Sylwester, 2005). This behavior, triggered by "mirror neurons" in the brain, is the beginning of a lifelong quest to understand the world around us, especially in relationship to each other…a development process that thrives on the playground.

Today's playgrounds provide incredible opportunities for children to observe and practice their highly-sophisticated gross motor skills. Many times this process of advance motor skills involves an action that takes place in the brain prior to the physical domain. "Mirror neurons make it possible for people to learn complex motor skills simply by seeing others perform them" (Hamilton, 2005).

The ability of our mirror neurons to translate the complex motor skills we observe into the direct learning of motor skills is one of the many mysteries of the human brain. It is not the mere observation of another's hands, arms, feet, and legs that trigger our mirror neurons, but is the observation of the hands, arms, feet, legs in a goal-directed action that triggers our mirror neurons. "Our mirror neurons won't fire at the mere observation of a hand – only when it's carrying out a goal-directed action" (Sylwester, 2005).

Therefore, the ability to observe others' movements on the playground, especially on climbing equipment, provides a set of motor skill blueprints that are imitated by the brain's mirror neuron system. Whether you're talking about stairs or rock climbers, this type of equipment provides children with a "mirror neuron learning lab" with which they can imitate and practice motor development skills.

Children learn and imitate through direct experiences, but they also learn through the observation of others' experiences. Playgrounds allow children to gather in a safe and pro-social environment that fosters direct learning through the observations of direct motor development and motor coordination. Today's playgrounds afford children the chance to observe and then practice complex motor skills and develop better neural connections that will later translate into better cognitive motor interaction.


Hamilton, Jon (2005). Scientists Say Neuron Provides Ability to Mimic. Morning Edition National Public Radio.

Sylwester, Robert (2005). How to Explain a Brain. Corwin.

JC Boushh is a recognized expert in the field of play, recess, playground, and the outdoor classroom as it applies to brain development and brain-compatible design. He has lectured worldwide as well as authored numerous articles on play and the outdoor environment.