The Benefits Of Play

Young boy with his arms raised in victory on top of a rock, conceptual image for conquering challenges, pushing the boundaries, and continuous improvement

Parents enjoy watching their children play and most of those parents will acknowledge that there are a number of benefits to the time that their children spend in creative and active play.

Apart from the obvious emotional aspects there is overwhelming scientific evidence to back up the hypothesis that a number of different types of children’s play will aid them in their completion of academic tasks as well as offering significant cognitive development if nurtured in the right way.

But what is the right way and how much and what types of play will give your child an advantage?

In contemporary thinking, there are five key areas that most types of play can be divided in to. They are often known as physical play, symbolic play, play with objects, pretending/socio-dramatic play and games with rules. Each type of play has different benefits for the child that are classified as aiding the development of physical, intellectual and socio-emotional growth in the child.

Physical Play

Physical play is the first type of play that we observe in children as this starts from a very early age but can be seen all the way through childhood and in to adolescence. Physical play is a major factor in the development of fine and gross motor skills in children and you will see this in most children over the age of 12 months.

Gross motor skills will develop as a result of physical play activities such as running, walking, jumping, crouching, crawling, riding a balance bike or a scooter or any other activity that involves large movements. These types of activities are often initiated by the child themselves and continue all the way through childhood in males and females.

Some parents are concerned by physical play that sometimes becomes aggressive in its nature. Examples of this might include play fighting, kicking, pinching, pushing, wrestling etc. Studies show that this type of play is found to help children develop their understanding of aggression and relationships.

Parents should not be overly concerned by these types of behaviors and as long as they are not the prime behavior type being displayed constantly they can be very beneficial to the socio-emotional development of the child.

A study by Mellen (2002) shows us that rough and tumble play between sons and their fathers that involved direct body contact led to better performance in terms of social competence at the age of 3 years.

building-blocks-for-kidsSymbolic Play

The development of symbolic play in children includes accessing symbolic language such as verbal, written (mark making), visual (drawing and painting) and listening to and making music.

If we think back to our own childhood then we can probably all recall examples of symbolic play and this is an area that is very well researched in terms of visual symbolism but less so in terms of aural development – more recent research does give a great deal of weight to the importance of both visual and aural symbols as being key factors in developing intellectual growth in children.

Children are fascinated by language from a young age and the cooing and babbling that children under the age of 12 months exhibit are some of the earliest signs of children trying to develop their language skills and intellectual minds.

There is overwhelming evidence from a number of studies that offer a direct correlation between children having access to visual and written play and having an increase in vocabulary by the age of 4. Messy play is popular amongst early years care providers and many modern parents encourage this – and for good reason according to the research.

Play With Objects

Like symbolic play, play with objects is witnessed from a very early age and is pretty much seen as soon children can hold and grasp an object. This form of play helps to develop fine motor skills as well as gross motor skills but it offers much more than just the physical development of these skills.

Children who have a variety of objects to play with are being exposed to a whole world of different imagined scenarios as children will often construct their own fictional narrative to accompany the physical play. Children can do this individually, with other children or with adults.

In addition to the imaginative potential of playing with objects, this type of play also offers children their first experiences of problem solving and reasoning. Although we may not realize it, children will set themselves targets to achieve when playing with objects and will develop resilience in trying to accomplish their goals.

Whether it is constructing Lego sets or toy building blocks, this type of play is important from the age of 12 months or less, right through to early adulthood and offers exponential benefits.

Pretending/Socio-Dramatic Play

This is the one type of play that is perhaps the most important to highlight in a world that has increasingly technology filled households. The risk to pretending/socio-dramatic play posed by the development of mobile and tablet technology coupled with busy lifestyles being led by modern working parents mean that this is an area that can easily be neglected.

A recent study (Whitebread and Jameson, 2010) has highlighted the importance of this type of play finding that children who have more experiences of pretending/socio-dramatic play have better narrative skills and deductive reasoning skills in 5-7 year olds compared to children who have had less experience of this type of play.

Another aspect of this type of play that is often frowned upon by parents and teachers is play that mirrors real life aggression such as play fighting or pretending to shoot each other with guns.

According to research these fears are unfounded and just like the concerns with physical play that displays aggression it is easy to see the difference between real and pretend aggression and this actually allows children to have more self control and self-regulation if they are able to experience this play type.

Games With Rules

The most advanced type of play is games with rules and this can be seen in a variety of formats. Children tend to initiate this type of play by themselves as they invent their own rules for their own invented games. This then tends to develop later in childhood when children are introduced to games with rules by parents or friends.

This type of play allows children to be exposed to greater levels of difficulty with games starting fairly simply such as catching or kicking a ball and can develop in to more complex games such as board games as children get older. As children develop they are then involved in much more complex rules such as those we see in video games and more complex sports.

In the last section we discussed the concerns with technology in households preventing children from developing through pretend/socio-dramatic types of play. Although this can be true with pretending and socio-dramatic types of play it is less true with games with rules.

Although somewhat dated, a study in 1997 by Van Schie and Wiegman found that the playing of video games correlated with a child’s intelligence. The more time spent playing video games led to an increase in intellect. There have been more recent studies to back up this claim, particularly around computer games that provide problem solving opportunities.


A Less Scientific Take On Childs Play

Regardless of what the research shows you would be hard pressed to find many parents, institutions or authorities that suggest creative and active play is not going to benefit your child. There are a variety of resources to be found here on the ACT Government website promoting the benefits of active play for children with some handy fact sheets and tips for parents and carers.

Amongst the top reasons for active play are an improvement in communication and social skills, understanding of social skills, a sense of ‘give and take’ and teamwork and a sense of belonging. You could probably now think of good examples for each of these and put them in to one of the five sections already discussed.

It is widely believed that a happy child is a playful child and there is a lot of truth in that statement. Fisher Price, the popular children’s toy manufacturer that has invested huge sums of money in child’s play research pretty much backs up what we have already said.

We have all heard the phrase ‘laughter is the best medicine’ and that is one of the company’s flagship quotes citing that when you have fun and laugh, your boost your own mood and psychological well-being. This is particularly true in children.

Benefits For The Child And The Parent

Fisher Price also discuss the well-being of the parents and carers on their website and state that certain types of play can provide a welcome boost for both the child and the parent. A great example of this is running alongside your child as they learn to ride a bicycle providing you with an opportunity for exercise as well as your child.

Structuring Your Child’s Play Time

As stated earlier in the article, there are times (and plenty of them) where a happy child will initiate play themselves. This comes as a result of our animal instincts and is seen in primates as well as many other examples in the animal kingdom.

Think about a cat playing with a ball of string or a dog running loops around a garden maze. The same is perfectly true of a human child. There are times however, where as a parent you will need to provide more structure to your child’s play activities.

Physical play all day every day is not going to be conducive to balanced all round development in your child, just like constant symbolic play will not achieve well rounded cognitive growth. It is therefore important that parents have a basic understanding of the 5 key areas of play for children and the benefits that they bring.

It is crucial that parents understand these areas of play and provide opportunities for their children to access all of them at various points over time.

Perhaps 20 minutes of listening and dancing to music each day or being given time to play dragons (or whatever else their imagination creates) with their friends a couple of times each week with an opportunity to paint or draw each day could have a big impact on their cognitive development. As parents we tend to push on to our children what we like and activities that we are comfortable with. It is important to remember that variety is the key to success here.

Other Findings

So far we have mainly discussed the benefit of play to happy and healthy children, but there are also bodies of work that point towards the benefits of pretending/socio dramatic play for children who have suffered traumatic or abusive experiences in their lives.

A study by Berk, Mann and Ogan (2006) found that this type of imaginative play was particularly helpful to children who had suffered emotionally stressful situations in their lives as a way to self manage and self regulate their own feelings and emotions by replicating the real life situations in their play.

For example, children who had experienced traumatic events in hospitals would create role-plays in similar situations that could help them overcome negative feelings associated with the memory.

Hopefully this article has highlighted the importance of play for children. If you have children of your own it is certainly worth spending a few moments to consider how your child plays and whether there are any areas lacking that you could give them the opportunity to explore.


Berk, L.E., Mann, T.D., and Ogan, A.T. (2006). Make-Believe Play: Wellspring for Development of Self-Regulation. In D.G. Singer, R.M. Golinkoff and K. Hirsh-Pasek (Eds.)

Mellen, H.S. (2002). Rough-and-tumble between parents and children and children’s social competence. Dissertation Abstracts International: Section B: The Sciences and Engineering, 63(3-B). 1588.

Van Schie, E.G.M., and Wiegman, O. (1997). Children and Videogames: Leisure Activities, Aggression, Social Integration, and School Performance. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 27 (13), 1175-1194.

Whitebread, D., and Jameson, H. (2010). Play beyond the Foundation Stage: story-telling, creative writing and self-regulation in able 6-7 year olds. In J. Moyles (Ed.), The Excellence of Play, 3rd Ed. (pp. 95-107). Maidenhead: Open University Press

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