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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.
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.
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:
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 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.
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,
That definitely sounds like someone who’s a fan of exploration and play!
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:
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.
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.
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.
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
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:
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.
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
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.
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:
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!
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
nurturedneurons.com to check out more articles. And feel free to subscribe while you’re there if
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Let’s Nurture those neurons!