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The Importance of Play for Cognitive Development

June 1, 2019, Author: Tamra Cater

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importance of play

This is a guest post by Ash- See the bio below and visit the blog! It’s a good one!

Play is important for cognitive development! There’s no ifs, ands or buts!

In fact, play is important to almost all aspects of a child’s development!

In recent years, there has been more recognition and emphasis put on the importance of
play and it has become a central part of teaching in many schools and preschools.

Through play, children have the chance to:
● Learn about and explore the world around them
● Make friends and resolve conflicts
● Problem solve and learn to think about things in different ways
● Form bonds with their parents, other adults and children
● Develop their fine and gross motor skills
● Learn to express and cope with their new and strange emotions
● Build self esteem and confidence
● Increase their independence
● Develop their sensory awareness
● Improve their speech and language skills
● Improve their maths and literacy skills
● Practise all the new skills they are learning each day

And the list goes on and on…

I have written a detailed post looking into the scientific research behind the many benefits of
play on child development which you can check out here.

This post will focus on the importance of play for cognitive development and how play
can help shape and develop these special and growing young minds.

So what exactly is cognitive development?

Cognitive development is all about how children develop the ability to think.

It includes developing their memory and knowledge, decision making, problem solving, and
how they learn to understand and interact with the world around them.


importance of play

The Importance of Play for Cognitive Development – Piaget’s

Many scientists and researchers have looked into the importance of play for cognitive
development. One of the earliest and most influential was a guy called Jean Piaget.

Piaget was a Swiss psychologist, and his theories on cognitive development are still the basis of
much research and the foundation for many developmental concepts today.

Before Piaget, many people believed that children were just not as good at thinking as adults.
What Piaget did was explain that children think in different ways at different stages of their

His theory of child intelligence contained four main stages of development:

The Sensorimotor Stage

This is the stage between 0 and around 2. In this stage, the child reacts to the sensory inputs of
their environment with the skills they have available. This includes looking around and listening;
grasping, hitting and pinching; and sucking and chewing.

The Preoperational Stage

The stage is between around 2 and 7. During this stage, children begin to talk and language
development receives a major boost. Their ability to play and pretend is much more important
and they also understand symbolic play. For example they could use a banana as a phone or a
shoe as a space rocket (you get the idea). Piaget argued that at this stage that they still don’t have a full grasp of on the concept of logic yet.

The Formal Operational Stage

This is the final stage and lasts from around 12 into adulthood. In this stage, the child’s thinking
and cognitive abilities become much more advanced. They are able to think abstractly and get
much better at thinking creatively to solve problems.

For a more in depth look at Piaget’s stages of cognitive development check out this site.

Piaget believed that play is important for cognitive development as it allows children to
experiment with their environment and understand how their reactions to different stimuli can
affect the world around them.

He was later quoted as saying “Our real problem is – what is the goal of education? Are we
forming children that are only capable of learning what is already known? Or should we try
developing creative and innovative minds, capable of discovery from the preschool age on,
throughout life?”

That definitely sounds like someone who’s a fan of exploration and play!

How Play Can Aid Cognitive Development

Now we have a basic understanding of how children think and how their cognitive abilities
develop at different ages let’s have a look at the research into exactly how play is important.

Sandra Walker Russ, in her book Play in Child Development and Psychotherapy, highlighted
some of the key areas in which play is important for enhancing children’s cognitive
development. She wrote that play can aid their:

Understanding of Symbolism

Something that Piaget talked about in the preoperational stage. This is the ability to use
ordinary objects to represent something else. New example – a blanket becomes a tent,
deep in the gloomy forest.

Organisational Skills

How to organise and understand the order of things. Russ stated that play can help them to
learn to tell a story in a logical order. To realise that things have a start and end with different
steps in between.

Divergent thinking

This is the ability to think of different ideas and themes. This can happen in pretend play
when children take on different roles and come up with different scenarios and endings.

Fantasy and Make-believe

Play develops the ability for children to use their imaginations. They learn to make things up
and pretend to be something different, in a different place or time, and with different

Problem Solving Skills

Play can also help to develop the ability to work things out and find favourable outcomes to
any issues that may arise whilst they are playing. How will they get from one side of the
room to the other without touching the boiling hot lava?

In the Blackwell Handbook of Childhood Cognitive Development, even more cognitive skills
are shown to be developed through play.

Lillard et al. explain that through play children can also develop:

Social Referencing

This is when a child uses how other people react to decide how they will react. An example
they use is a study where a 12 month old wouldn’t cross a pretend cliff edge when their
mother showed fear – but was happy to cross it when their mother did and was encouraging.

The Ability To Read Intentions

This is the ability for a child to recognise when someone else is making something up and
being able to understand what they are imagining. For example, if one child is using that
banana as a phone the child they are playing with is able to realise this and play along with

Separating Pretend From Reality

Being able to understand the difference between when someone is playing or not. This will
stop them becoming confused and can also prevent them from being scared. If I’m chasing
my little boy around pretending to be a monster he enjoys it because he knows it’s just me
and I’m not really going to eat him.

It Can Also Improve Their Social Cognition

Through role play they can become better at putting themselves in other people’s shoes and
understanding how other people are feeling. They also have more chances to learn about
and practice their negotiating skills.

Doris Bergen, Professor of Educational Psychology Emerita at Miami University, is another
leading scientist who agrees that play is crucial.

She wrote that pretend play gives children the chance to practise and develop other cognitive
skills such as planning, negotiation and goal setting.

Here’s a couple of awesome toys that can be used for pretend play:

importance of playimportance of play

Some Final Thoughts On the Importance of Play For Cognitive

From understanding symbolism to social referencing, from to problem solving to planning, it’s
clear that play plays a vital role in the practise and development of a child’s cognitive abilities.

Play gives children the freedom and confidence to explore what their minds are capable of and
allows them to do it in a way that they enjoy and is fun!

So, if you want your child to be a better thinker – let them play!


Author Bio
Hi, I’m Ash from over at Nurtured Neurons. My site focuses on
exploring the scientific research behind child development and
parenting. If you enjoyed this please head over to to check out more articles. And feel free to subscribe while you’re there if
you’d like to be kept up to date with all the latest happenings.

You can also follow me on:

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comments (14)

  • avatar image
    Great article. It was insightful and very informative. For instance, I was never conscious of the fact that children think differently at different stages of development.


    June 1, 2019 Reply
    • avatar image
      It is interesting how they think differently at different stages!

      Tamra Cater

      June 1, 2019 Reply
  • avatar image
    It is so important that we work on a child's cognitive development early on. I love the benefits of acting on this earlier to help the child perform better. I don't have a kid yet but these are definitely useful tips for the future! Nancy ♥


    June 2, 2019 Reply
    • avatar image
      I absolutely agree! Thank you!

      Tamra Cater

      June 2, 2019 Reply
  • avatar image
    I've never considered how important play is for the development of a child but now it all makes sense. I definitely can see how this allows children to learn about the world and how to interact with others. Great article!

    Michael Anderson

    June 2, 2019 Reply
  • avatar image
    This is so important. As parents, we feel pressured to over schedule our kids in sports and enrichment programs. We've forgotten how much kids learn from play and how they need free time to play. Thanks for shedding light on this!

    Amanda I Pinwheels and Piggybanks

    June 3, 2019 Reply
  • avatar image
    This is a wonderful article full of useful information! I agree playing helps them learn and develop as my little girl has always been incredibly adviced, even walking by 7 months. I never left her sat in things infront of the tv like my friends left their children. The difference shows. It's enjoyable for us parents to play and get creative with our little ones too. Thank you for sharing with us Alyssa THESACREDSPACEAP.COM


    June 3, 2019 Reply
    • avatar image
      Thanks for reading!

      Tamra Cater

      June 3, 2019 Reply
  • avatar image
    I love the message shared here. I feel like some parents expect their children to grow up too quickly and do not give them enough time to just be children and play. Playing is good for so many things and sometimes it is the perfect opportunity for you to jump in and engage with your child.

    Jaya Avendel

    June 3, 2019 Reply
    • avatar image
      I absolutely agree!

      Tamra Cater

      June 3, 2019 Reply
  • avatar image
    I couldn’t agree more, Tamra! As a teacher and mom, I’ve seen a number of times how essential play can be, even for my older students.


    June 3, 2019 Reply
  • avatar image
    Great article, and so fascinating x


    June 4, 2019 Reply
  • avatar image
    Such an important post for anyone raising kids! These days it seems that children are becoming adults alot earlier than those of us born in the 90's or beyound ever had to. Play, especially with other kids, is so important to our development as human beings!


    June 7, 2019 Reply
  • […] to Piaget’s theory of child intelligence, children between the ages of 2 and 7 begin to understand and develop a stronger grasp of symbolic […]

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