The key to learning is fun

'Play' is important for a child's cognitive development and learning ⎮4 min 30 sec read
Published in Neuroscience
The key to learning is fun

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The Nature team were keen to know more about my research experiences and in the following interview, I discuss my study: 'Introducing students to neural communication: an embodied-learning classroom demonstrationwith Behind the Paper 

Why did you want to be a cognitive neuroscientist and what does your research focus on?

What truly drew me to cognitive neuroscience was not just the fascinating subject matter, but the ways in which it was taught. I was fortunate to have a number of amazing instructors in these areas, each with their own strategies to make the material shine. For example, in a perception course, the professor ran some weekly experiments that involved everything from distinguishing flavours with our noses plugged, to using paperclips for a two-point discrimination threshold task. Some of my neuroscience professors had us dissect fetal pig brains, some had us use spaghetti and string to learn about the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease (neurofibrillary tangles and amyloid plaques), and all were exceptionally enthusiastic about their material, pointing out what they thought was fascinating, which in turn piqued my own curiosity.

My research interests are in the realm of functional cerebral laterality. To say more would be beyond the scope of this blog, but suffice to say, I initially became drawn to this area during my first volunteer experience in a laboratory with a professor who, once again, was enthusiastic and creative.

Is teaching neural communication using embodied metaphors a new concept? And how does it benefit the student?

The topic of neural communication is core to courses in a number of disciplines, so there are a number of excellent resources that are already widely used including textbooks, diagrams, and videos. However, embodied metaphors are a specific type of learning wherein you draw analogies to the material using your own self and the environment around you. Research has shown this type of learning to be especially effective, particularly as we learn more about how cognition itself is embodied (e.g., see Amin, Jeppsson, & Haglund, 2015, who introduce a special issue on this topic). Our brains do not process information in isolation; our sensorimotor systems and social environments feed into our cognitions. We can use this to our advantage when trying to learn something new by getting our bodies involved and interacting with our environments.

As a simple example, in my paper I point out that we often use a ‘lock and key’ metaphor to teach students how neurotransmitters bind to receptors. This metaphor in itself is useful in bringing a somewhat abstract and complex topic into the realm of familiarity. However going a step further and actually using a key to open a lock is going to be even more effective for students to learn and recall this analogy. These kinds of embodied learning activities are less common in STEM classrooms, but I argue that this is where we need them the most!

How does your research inform approaches to teaching and learning?

My Brief Communication provides a series of activities that instructors can use in their neuroscience classroom to teach some basics of neural communication. Students use toy projectiles (such as Nerf guns) and interact with each other to learn 4 key concepts: the action potential; neurotransmission and receptor action; excitatory and inhibitory post-synaptic potentials; and neurotransmitter inactivation. In the paper I report that the activities improved students’ impressions of how well they understood the material and how well they could teach these concepts to other people. Anecdotally, they said that they really enjoyed the activities and found them to be memorable and useful.

Do you think learning environments sufficiently cater for the student as an individual learner?

This is a rather timely question. With the shift to online teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic, many university instructors are revisiting pedagogical practice and engaging with new delivery techniques (Rapanta, Botturi, Goodyear, Guàrdia, & Koole, 2020). Moreover, our students are learning primarily from their home environments, which sometimes can be less than ideal, and this shift has resulted in anxiety in some of the student population (Unger & Meiran, 2020). Although it may be some time before we return to classroom teaching, now is the perfect time to start rethinking how we educate our students and use their existing learning spaces more effectively (Iwanaga, Loukas, Dumont, & Tubbs, 2021; Qiang, Obando, Chen & Ye; 2020). We don’t have to wait until we return to the classroom to start using more embodied metaphors. For example, in a neuroscience module we can ask students to build different types of neurons using household materials (making sure all key anatomical features are represented) and post their creations to the virtual classroom. I did a variant of this for a recent group of Social Sciences students, many of whom have minimal training in neuroscience, and they did an excellent job of creatively using household materials (from strawberries to pet dogs) to represent different parts of a stereotypical neuron.

Do you have any final thoughts?

We know that play is important for children’s cognitive development and learning (see the white paper by Liu et al., 2017 for more detail). It seems that integrating aspects of ‘play’ into the adult classroom environment, for example by using embodied metaphor activities, can make for a memorable and engaging learning experience. As was the case for me when I was an undergraduate student, these unique learning experiences may even spark special interest in the field, and ultimately aid in recruiting the next generation of neuroscience teachers and researchers.


Amin, T. G., Jeppsson, F., & Haglund, J. (2015). Conceptual metaphor and embodied cognition in science learning: Introduction to special issue.

Iwanaga, J., Loukas, M., Dumont, A. S., & Tubbs, R. S. (2021). A review of anatomy education during and after the COVID‐19 pandemic: Revisiting traditional and modern methods to achieve future innovation. Clinical Anatomy34(1), 108-114.

Liu, C., Solis, S. L., Jensen, H., Hopkins, E. J., Neale, D., Zosh, J. M., Hirsh-Pasek, K., & Whitebread, D. (2017). Neuroscience and learning through play: a review of the evidence (research summary). The LEGO Foundation, DK.

Qiang, Z., Obando, A. G., Chen, Y., & Ye, C. (2020). Revisiting Distance Learning Resources for Undergraduate Research and Lab Activities during COVID-19 Pandemic. Journal of Chemical Education97(9), 3446-3449.

Rapanta, C., Botturi, L., Goodyear, P., Guàrdia, L., & Koole, M. (2020). Online university teaching during and after the Covid-19 crisis: Refocusing teacher presence and learning activity. Postdigital Science and Education2(3), 923-945.

Unger, S., & Meiran, W. R. (2020). Student attitudes towards online education during the COVID-19 viral outbreak of 2020: Distance learning in a time of social distance. International Journal of Technology in Education and Science (IJTES)4(4), 256-266.

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