March 11, 2009

The Neuroscience of the Imagination Playground

In the 1960s, Dr. Marion Diamond and her colleagues at the University of California, Berkley discovered, through various experiments, that the more challenging, novel, and dynamic an environment, the more growth we see in the structure of the brain (Diamond, 1998).

Now jump forward over 40 years, when KaBOOM! and architect David Rockwell teamed up to bring Imagination Playground™ in a BOX to children all over the country. This playground exhibits all the attributes that Dr. Diamond found to catalyze brain growth, consisting of two rolling cases filled with “loose parts,” a large array of movable objects, as well as portable sand and water features, all of which are intended to increase interaction and engagement.

Child development research shows us that novelty attracts children’s attention to play, and complexity sustains children’s attention during play. What David Rockwell has accomplished in the design and conception of Imagination Playground™ is to create an incarnation of the enriched environment in Marion Diamond’s original neurological experiments in the 1960s in the form of a playground. Imagination Playground™ affects children not only in the context of providing them with rich and engaging play opportunities, but also directly affects children’s brain development on a neurological level.

The brain is an immensely complex and ever-changing organ, and is directly influenced and shaped by its environment. “The type, quality, and diversity of the physical setting we create for children directly affects the type, quality, and diversity of the child’s play” (White, 2004). What recent brain imaging has showed us is that the neurological connections we create in the brain -- called synapses -- and the process with which those connections are created – synaptogenesis -- are directly correlated with both the environment and the activity that occurs in this environment (Sylwester, 2005).

The human brain continually changes and molds to its environment. This adaptation is done through the creating and pruning of neural pathways in the brain. Imagination Playground™ creates numerous opportunities for enriched and innovative play that strengthens and creates neural connections. We call that "experiential learning."

“Researchers have discovered that play is related to greater creativity and imagination and even to higher reading levels and IQ scores. Based on the research evidence, a new equation is in order: PLAY = LEARNING” (Hirsch-Pasek & Golinkioff, 2003). Play is the catalyst for the human brain, and the key to healthy brain development in children. Imagination Playground™ is an example of a “loose parts” playground that keeps the brain interested in learning through play.

Want to learn more? Several webinars about Imagination Playground™ are scheduled for this month!


Diamond, Marion (1998). Magic Trees of the Mind. Plume

Hirsch-Pasek, K. & Golinkoff, R.M. (2003). Einstein Never Used Flash Cards. Rodale.

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

White, Randy (2004). Adults are from Earth; Children are from the Moon.

Designing for Children: A Complex Challenge. White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group.

J.C. 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.

health, development