The role of play in child development

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Why is play important for child development?

You have probably heard the famous saying by the great philosopher, Plato ‘life must be lived as play’.

Indeed, he was right about this. Play is essential to children and adolescents’ development. Research has found many benefits to play and it has been found to impact on a child’s development in numerous ways for example, emotionally, socially, cognitively and physically.

‘… play shapes the architecture of the brain in unique ways; it links social, creative and cognitive skills’ (Bartlett, 2010) 















However, unfortunately the play experience for today’s child is very different to that of previous generations. I am sure many of you remember playing outside till the street lights came on, whether it be hula hooping, skipping, playing double dutch or hopscotch, climbing trees and drinking ice-cold homemade lemonade in the beaming sun. I have recollections of feeling so free in my childhood, but sadly due to new technology this experience has been robbed from the new generation of children. Children spend much less time playing games such as ‘hide and seek’ and rather are passively entertained by electronic devices such as ipad’s, video games and television. Football in the park, is now replaced by endless hours of Fifa and fun games of tag are replaced by back to back games of call of duty.

Some of my best memories as a child were the times when I made a den with my cousins and we would sleep underneath it and have picnics inside. We would gather mum’s bedding, towels and anything we could find. It was annoying when it would fall down but nothing beat putting it back together again. I wonder if my children will be able to have these same fun memories that I had when growing up. Children no longer have the opportunity to expand their imagination or to be creative and this is worrying as their chances of learning are dramatically reduced. Research has shown children can learn significantly more through exploratory experiences, such as play and so it is important that we recognise and value this.

Play provides an opportunity for children to be spontaneous and it helps them to discover and explore the world. Studies have shown excessive media usage can lead to problems with sleep, attention and eating disorders and therefore it is important that we limit a child’s usage of these devices. For children who are over 2 years old, it is advised that they are limited to 2 hours a day and for children below 2 years old, it is recommended that they have no exposure at all-as their brain is in the formative stages of developing (American Academy of Pediatrics, AAP; 2001). Decades of research has shown play to be fundamental for a child’s development and so it is important they we encourage children to play as much as possible to help them grow and develop.

















What are the benefits of play for child development?

  1. Play helps with learning

Play is crucial for a child’s learning. It can be helpful to provide children with a range of play materials as this will help them to learn in different ways. For example:

  • Playdough, painting, dressing up and playing with dolls can encourage creativity, imagination and also help children to express their feelings and develop empathy skills.
  • Play shops with pretend money can help children develop mathematical skills.
  • Playing football, running and dancing can help children develop motor skills, strength and good coordination.
  • Building block games, puzzles and Jigsaws can help children to recognise different shapes and develop their logic.
  • Sand and water can introduce concepts such as science as children may begin to understand the difference between water and sand, with water being a liquid and sand being a solid.
  • Playing musical instruments can help children develop rhythm and listening skills. Singing can also be useful for this and can also help promote memory and word identification.
  • Games with turn taking help children to develop communication skills

This list therefore shows how important it is that children are presented with a variety of opportunities to play as this will enhance their learning. Research has found that play can impact on the brain as neuroscientific studies have demonstrated that play leads to growth in the pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for higher mental functions.

  1. Play promotes imagination and creativity

Every time a child pretends to make you a cup of tea with their tea set or pretends that they are performing at a concert to all their stuffed animals, he or she is learning. Play especially the kind which is make-believe increases a child’s imagination, facilitates improvisation and enhances problem solving skills.

  1. Play develops social and communication skills

Play helps children to develop speech, language and vocabulary skills. Whether children play in isolation or with others. Play results in a substantial amount of talking as children may hold a conversation with their imaginary friend. Play provides the opportunity to interact with others and to be a leader or take instructions from others. It provides an opportunity for children to learn to share and control their impulses, helping them to respect others decisions. This is crucial for their development of social skills as they may learn early on how to cooperate and negotiate with others.

  1. Cognitive development

Play also helps a child’s cognitive development. A child at play is constantly thinking, experimenting and problem solving. Play is crucial as it helps enhance a child’s memory skills and attention span. During play a child becomes actively engaged in mental planning, self-monitoring, and evaluating (Isenberg & Jalongo, 2010) and they can master new concepts as a result. Play therefore is important for cognitive development as it allows children to develop skills necessary for later in life. For example, as adults we need to be able to think, problem solve, plan and evaluate.

So finally, I encourage parents to turn off the ipad’s, hide away the controllers, switch off the television’s, grab the ball and enjoy some playtime with your kids!!



Bartlett, L.(2010). Play-based learning and the EYLF [online video presentation]. Canberra: Early Childhood Australia. Retrieved 7th October 2016 , from http://www. learning_and_the_eylf.php

Isenberg, J & Jalongo, M (2010). Why is Play Important? Cognitive Development, Language Development, Literacy Development. Pearson Allyn Bacon PrenticeHall. Retrieved 2nd December, 2014 from:

 Reddy, L.A., Files-Hall, T.M & Schaefer, C.E. (2005). Empirically based play interventions for children (2nd ed). Washington, D.C.: Americal Psychological Association.

Winerman, L. (2009). Playtime in Peril. Monitor on Psychology, 40(8), 50-52

This blog post is written by Dr Rebecca Heron, a Psychologist and founder of Knufflesitters Nanny Agency. Rebecca provides nannies and babysitters to families in the Netherlands and has a background in counselling and providing psychological assessments to children and adults.



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