Motivation, intrinsic motivation and play

Motivation to move 

Atun-Einy O, Berger SE, Scher A. Assessing motivation to move and its relationship to motor development in infancy. Infant Behav Dev. 2013 Jun;36(3):457-69.

Motivation to move has typically been a post hoc explanation for infants' discovery of new patterns of behavior. As a first step to studying motivation to move directly, we qualitatively assessed motivation to move and measured its relationship to motor development in infancy. We observed 27 infants longitudinally from ages 7 to 12 months. Every 3 weeks we assessed infants' motor motivation based on persistence, activity level, activity preference, and stimulus strength needed to elicit movement. We documented the onset of sitting, pulling-to-stand, crawling and cruising, as well as infants' overall motor development as measured with the Alberta Infant Motor Scale (AIMS). Motor motivation increased over the course of the study and we identified two distinct motivation profiles. Strongly motivated infants had earlier onsets for all four motor milestones than weakly motivated infants (all p-values <0.05). Infants' motivation to move score was positively correlated with their AIMS percentile at the same and subsequent sessions. These findings provide empirical evidence for a motivational cascade whereby motivation to moveand motor development enjoy a reciprocal relationship. These findings have important clinical implications for children with motor delay, suggesting that evaluation of motivation could be included as part of the assessment procedure so that both treatment and expectations can be tailored appropriately.

Mears CE, Harlow HF. Play: early and eternal. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1975 May;72(5):1878-82

A systematic 12-week investigation of development of play behavior was conducted with eight socially reared rhesus monkey infants. A new, basic and primary play form termed self-motion play or peragration was identified and examined. This behavior follows a human model which includes a wide range of pleasurable activities involving motion of the body through space, e.g., rocking, swinging, running, leaping, and water or snow skiing. It can be argued that self-motion play is the initial primate playform and because of its persistence constitutes a reinforcing agent for maintaining many complex patterns and even pastimes. Monkey self-motion play in the present study was divided into five separate patterns in order to compare the relative importance of social and individual peragration play, the role of apparatus and the overall developmental relationships between the different individual and social self-motion play patterns. The data showed that from 90 to 180 days of age self-motion play was independent of other forms of play, that individual self-motion play appeared earlier and with significantly greater increases in frequency than did social self-motion play, and that apparatus was a necessary component for significant increases in social self-motion play. Other findings were that self-motion play existed independent of locomotion and, though initiated by exploration, was separate from it. Therapeutic implications of self-motion play were discussed.

Intrinsic motivation 

Intrinsic motivation refers to a mechanism pushing individuals to select and engage in activities for their own sake because they are inherently interesting (in opposition to extrinsic motivation, which refers to doing something because it leads to a separable outcome).

A key idea of recent approaches to intrinsic motivation is that learning progress in sensorimotor activities can generate intrinsic rewards in and for itself, and drive such spontaneous exploration (Gottlieb et al., 2013).

Learning progress refers to the infant’s improvement of his predictions or control over activity they practice, which can also be described as reduction of uncertainty (Friston et al., 2012).

"Decades of research shows that IM is related to improved performance
and learning within an activity. Controlling for other factors, individuals who are intrinsically motivated are likely to think more strategically, generate more creative solutions, persist through difficulties, and learn more from their experiences (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Because their attention and motivation (their “hearts and minds”) are more fully engaged, their mental work is thought to be more efficient and effective. Increasing evi- dence suggests that IM is a basic human psychological system that mobilizes engagement in important but challenging activities, including learning (Izard & Ackerman, 2000; Ryan & Deci, 2008)."  Larson 2011

Function of IM

IM can be seen as a missing piece in an important puzzle. Humans are
designed as a species to be learners and doers. Although lacking in the sensory acuity, strength, speed, and built-in weapons of other creatures, we are distinguished by our enormous cerebral cortex—a massive central processing unit (about 20 billion neurons)—which allows us to pursue cog- nitively complex and challenging goals. A limitation is that a substantial portion of this massive processor arrives relatively “unprogrammed.” But of course that is the beauty of the human brain. It allows us to learn and adapt to diverse physical, social, and, now, technological environments. In fact, humans have a longer childhood than any other species, presumably to allow us to begin loading all those neurons with experience, knowledge, and skills (Bjorklund & Ellis, 2005)—to practice and develop our human potential for learning and doing. The missing piece is the motivation to do this—to learn and use this big brain for challenging activities. This is a major function that psychologists attribute to the IM system: to mobilize conscious and deliberate processes of learning and development (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990; Ryan & Deci, 2009)." Larson 2011

Exploratory behavior

Exploatory behavior can be defined as the choice of actions with the goal of obtaining information. (Gorrlieb 2013)

While information seeking is often geared toward uncertainty reduction, the motivations behind this process can be diverse and derive from extrinsic or intrinsic factors.

In extrinsically motivated contexts, information gathering is a means to an end – i.e., it is used to maximize the agent’s progress toward a separate goal. Exploratoy behavior allows the child to discover the best strategy for achieving a gaol. 

Curiosity driven exploratory actions are distinct from goal directed motor acts in that their primary goal is to obtain new and interesting information, and not to effect a change in the enviromnent or achieve a specific goal. 

The difference between exploratory hand action to discover and exploit the properties of objects, which is distinct from learning to take remove the lid of a container. 

Intrinsic motivation drives curiosity or interest motivated exploratory behavior. 

."The fact that animals, and particularly humans, seem avidly to seek out information without an apparent ulterior motive suggests that the brain generates intrinsic rewards that assign value to information, and raises complex questions regarding the benefits and computations of such rewards." Gottlieb 2013

"To explain such behaviors and the high degree of motivation associated with them, it seems necessary to assume that the brain generates intrinsic rewards related to learning or acquiring information (Berlyne 1960).

Some support for this idea comes from the observation that the dopaminergic system, the brain’s chief reward system, is sensitive to intrinsic rewards (Redgrave, Gurney et al. 2008), responds to anticipated information about rewards in monkeys (Bromberg-Martin and Hikosaka 2009) and is activated by paradigms that induce curiosity in humans (Kang, Hsu et al. 2009Jepma, Verdonschot et al. 2012)."


Friston, K., Adams, R. A., Perrinet, L., and Breakspear, M. (2012). Perceptions as hypotheses: saccades as experiments. Front. Psychol. 3:151. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00151

Gottlieb, J., Oudeyer, P.-Y., Lopes, M., & Baranes, A. (2013). Information seeking, curiosity and attention: computational and neural mechanisms. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 17(11), 585–593.

Kaplan, F., & Oudeyer, P.-Y. (2007). In Search of the Neural Circuits of Intrinsic Motivation. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 1(1), 225–236.

Reed W. Larson and Natalie Rusk, Intrinsic Motivation and Positive
Development. In Richard M. Lerner, Jacqueline V. Lerner and Janette B. Benson, editors: Advances in Child Development and Behavior, Vol. 41, Burlington: Academic Press, 2011, pp. 89-130.

Majnemer A, Shevell M, Law M, Poulin C, Rosenbaum P. Level of motivation in mastering challenging tasks in children with cerebral palsy. Dev Med Child Neurol. 2010 Dec;52(12):1120-6. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-8749.2010.03732.x. PubMed PMID: 20646031.

Moulin-Frier, C., Nguyen, S. M., & Oudeyer, P.-Y. (2013). Self-organization of early vocal development in infants and machines: the role of intrinsic motivation. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 1006.

Panksepp, J. (1998). Affective neuroscience: The foundations of human and animal emotion. New York: Oxford University Press

Twomey, K. E., & Westermann, G. (2018). Curiosity-based learning in infants: a neurocomputational approach. Developmental science, 21(4), e12629. doi:10.1111/desc.12629

Muentener, P., Herrig, E., & Schulz, L. (2018). The Efficiency of Infants' Exploratory Play Is Related to Longer-Term Cognitive Development. Frontiers in psychology, 9, 635. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00635

Intrinsic motivation

Oudeyer, P.-Y., & Kaplan, F. (2007). What is Intrinsic Motivation? A Typology of Computational Approaches. Frontiers in Neurorobotics, 1, 6.


Kidd, C., & Hayden, B. Y. (2015). The psychology and neuroscience of curiosity. Neuron, 88(3), 449–460.