Cognitive and Emotional Development Through Play

We some­times neglect to men­tion a very basic yet pow­er­ful method of cog­ni­tive and emo­tion­al devel­op­ment, for chil­dren and adults alike: Play.

Dr. David Elkind, author of The Pow­er of Play: Learn­ing That Comes Nat­u­ral­ly, dis­cuss­es the need to build a more “play­ful cul­ture” in this great arti­cle The Power of Play And Learningbrought to you thanks to our col­lab­o­ra­tion with Greater Good Mag­a­zine.


Can We Play?

– By Dr. David Elkind

Play is rapid­ly dis­ap­pear­ing from our homes, our schools, and our neigh­bor­hoods. Over the last two decades alone, chil­dren have lost eight hours of free, unstruc­tured, and spon­ta­neous play a week. More than 30,000 schools in the Unit­ed States have elim­i­nat­ed recess to make more time for aca­d­e­mics. From 1997 to 2003, chil­dren’s time spent out­doors fell 50 per­cent, accord­ing to a study by San­dra Hof­ferth at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mary­land. Hof­ferth has also found that the amount of time chil­dren spend in orga­nized sports has dou­bled, and the num­ber of min­utes chil­dren devote each week to pas­sive leisure, not includ­ing watch­ing tele­vi­sion, has increased from 30 min­utes to more than three hours. It is no sur­prise, then, that child­hood obe­si­ty is now con­sid­ered an epidemic.

But the prob­lem goes well beyond obe­si­ty. Decades of research has shown that play is cru­cial to phys­i­cal, intel­lec­tu­al, and social-emo­tion­al devel­op­ment at all ages. This is espe­cial­ly true of the purest form of play: the unstruc­tured, self-moti­vat­ed, imag­i­na­tive, inde­pen­dent kind, where chil­dren ini­ti­ate their own games and even invent their own rules.

In infan­cy and ear­ly child­hood, play is the activ­i­ty through which chil­dren learn to rec­og­nize col­ors and shapes, tastes and sounds‚ the very build­ing blocks of real­i­ty. Play also pro­vides path­ways to love and social con­nec­tion. Ele­men­tary school chil­dren use play to learn mutu­al respect, friend­ship, coop­er­a­tion, and com­pe­ti­tion. For ado­les­cents, play is a means of explor­ing pos­si­ble iden­ti­ties, as well as a way to blow off steam and stay fit. Even adults have the poten­tial to unite play, love, and work, attain­ing the dynam­ic, joy­ful state that psy­chol­o­gist Mihaly Csik­szent­mi­ha­lyi calls “flow.”

With play on the decline, we risk los­ing these and many oth­er ben­e­fits. For too long, we have treat­ed play as a lux­u­ry that kids, as well as adults, could do with­out. But the time has come for us to rec­og­nize why play is worth defend­ing: It is essen­tial to lead­ing a hap­py and healthy life.

Play and development

Years of research has con­firmed the val­ue of play. In ear­ly child­hood, play helps chil­dren devel­op skills they can not get in any oth­er way. Bab­bling, for exam­ple, is a self-ini­ti­at­ed form of play through which infants cre­ate the sounds they need to learn the lan­guage of their par­ents. Like­wise, chil­dren teach them­selves to crawl, stand, and walk through rep­e­ti­tious prac­tice play. At the preschool lev­el, chil­dren engage in dra­mat­ic play and learn who is a leader, who is a fol­low­er, who is out­go­ing, who is shy. They also learn to nego­ti­ate their own conflicts.

A 2007 report from the Amer­i­can Acad­e­my of Pedi­atrics doc­u­ments that play pro­motes not only behav­ioral devel­op­ment but brain growth as well. The Uni­ver­si­ty of North Car­oli­na’s Abecedar­i­an Ear­ly Child Inter­ven­tion pro­gram found that chil­dren who received an enriched, play-ori­ent­ed par­ent­ing and ear­ly child­hood pro­gram had sig­nif­i­cant­ly high­er IQ’s at age five than did a com­pa­ra­ble group of chil­dren who were not in the pro­gram (105 vs. 85 points).

A large body of research evi­dence also sup­ports the val­ue and impor­tance of par­tic­u­lar types of play. For exam­ple, Israeli psy­chol­o­gist Sara Smi­lan­sky’s clas­sic stud­ies of socio­dra­mat­ic play, where two or more chil­dren par­tic­i­pate in shared make believe, demon­strate the val­ue of this play for aca­d­e­m­ic, social, and emo­tion­al learn­ing. “Socio­dra­mat­ic play acti­vates resources that stim­u­late social and intel­lec­tu­al growth in the child, which in turn affects the child’s suc­cess in school,” con­cludes Smi­lan­sky in a 1990 study that com­pared Amer­i­can and Israeli chil­dren. “For exam­ple, prob­lem solv­ing in most school sub­jects requires a great deal of make believe, visu­al­iz­ing how the Eski­mos live, read­ing sto­ries, imag­in­ing a sto­ry and writ­ing it down, solv­ing arith­metic prob­lems, and deter­min­ing what will come next.”

Oth­er research illus­trates the impor­tance of phys­i­cal play for chil­dren’s learn­ing and devel­op­ment. Some of these stud­ies have high­light­ed the impor­tance of recess. Psy­chol­o­gist Antho­ny Pel­le­gri­ni and his col­leagues have found that ele­men­tary school chil­dren become increas­ing­ly inat­ten­tive in class when recess is delayed. Sim­i­lar­ly, stud­ies con­duct­ed in French and Cana­di­an ele­men­tary schools over a peri­od of four years found that reg­u­lar phys­i­cal activ­i­ty had pos­i­tive effects on aca­d­e­m­ic per­for­mance. Spend­ing one third of the school day in phys­i­cal edu­ca­tion, art, and music improved not only phys­i­cal fit­ness, but atti­tudes toward learn­ing and test scores. These find­ings echo those from one analy­sis of 200 stud­ies on the effects of exer­cise on cog­ni­tive func­tion­ing, which also sug­gests that phys­i­cal activ­i­ty pro­motes learning.

In recent years, and most espe­cial­ly since the 2002 pas­sage of the No Child Left Behind Act, we’ve seen edu­ca­tors, pol­i­cy mak­ers, and many par­ents embrace the idea that ear­ly aca­d­e­mics leads to greater suc­cess in life. Yet sev­er­al stud­ies by Kathy Hirsch-Pasek and col­leagues have com­pared the per­for­mance of chil­dren attend­ing aca­d­e­m­ic preschools with those attend­ing play-ori­ent­ed preschools. The results showed no advan­tage in read­ing and math achieve­ment for chil­dren attend­ing the aca­d­e­m­ic preschools. But there was evi­dence that those chil­dren had high­er lev­els of test anx­i­ety, were less cre­ative, and had more neg­a­tive atti­tudes toward school than did the chil­dren attend­ing the play preschools.

So if play is that impor­tant, why is it disappearing?

The per­fect storm

The decline of chil­dren’s free, self-ini­ti­at­ed play is the result of a per­fect storm of tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tion, rapid social change, and eco­nom­ic globalization.

Tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tions have led to the all-per­va­sive­ness of tele­vi­sion and com­put­er screens in our soci­ety in gen­er­al, and in our homes in par­tic­u­lar. An unin­tend­ed con­se­quence of this inva­sion is that child­hood has moved indoors. Chil­dren who might once have enjoyed a pick-up game of base­ball in an emp­ty lot now watch the game on TV, sit­ting on their couch.

Mean­while, sin­gle and work­ing par­ents now out­num­ber the once-pre­dom­i­nant nuclear fam­i­ly, in which a stay-at-home moth­er could pro­vide the kind of loose over­sight that facil­i­tates free play. Instead, busy work­ing par­ents out­source at least some of their for­mer respon­si­bil­i­ties to coach­es, tutors, train­ers, mar­tial arts teach­ers, and oth­er pro­fes­sion­als. As a result, mid­dle-income chil­dren spend more of their free time in adult-led and ‑orga­nized activ­i­ties than any ear­li­er gen­er­a­tion. (Low-income youth some­times have the oppo­site prob­lem: Their par­ents may not have the means to put them in high-qual­i­ty pro­grams that pro­vide alter­na­tives to play­ing in unsafe neighborhoods.)

Final­ly, a glob­al econ­o­my has increased parental fears about their chil­dren’s prospects in an increas­ing­ly high-tech mar­ket­place. Many mid­dle-class par­ents have bought into the idea that edu­ca­tion is a race, and that the ear­li­er you start your child in aca­d­e­mics, the bet­ter. Preschool tutor­ing in math and pro­grams such as the Kumon Sys­tem, which empha­sizes dai­ly drills in math and read­ing, are becom­ing increas­ing­ly pop­u­lar. And all too many kinder­gartens, once ded­i­cat­ed to learn­ing through play, have become full-day aca­d­e­m­ic insti­tu­tions that require test­ing and home­work. In such a world, play has come to be seen as a waste of pre­cious time. A 1999 sur­vey found that near­ly a third of kinder­garten class­es did not have a recess period.

As adults have increas­ing­ly thwart­ed self-ini­ti­at­ed play and games, we have lost impor­tant mark­ers of the stages in a child’s devel­op­ment. In the absence of such mark­ers, it is dif­fi­cult to deter­mine what is appro­pri­ate and not appro­pri­ate for chil­dren. We run the risk of push­ing them into cer­tain activ­i­ties before they are ready, or stunt­ing the devel­op­ment of impor­tant intel­lec­tu­al, social, or emo­tion­al skills.

For exam­ple, it is only after the age of six or sev­en that chil­dren will spon­ta­neous­ly par­tic­i­pate in games with rules, because it is only at that age that they are ful­ly able to under­stand and fol­low rules. Those kinds of devel­op­men­tal mark­ers fall by the way­side when we slot very young kids into activ­i­ties such as Lit­tle League. When Lit­tle League was found­ed in 1939, the adult orga­niz­ers looked to chil­dren them­selves in set­ting the start­ing age, which end­ed up being about age nine or old­er. But the suc­cess of Lit­tle League was not lost on par­ents eager to find super­vised activ­i­ties for young chil­dren. Before long, team soc­cer was pro­mot­ed for younger chil­dren because it was an eas­i­er and less com­plex game for the six- to nine-year-old age group. The rapid growth of soc­cer leagues chal­lenged the pop­u­lar­i­ty of Lit­tle League. This led to the intro­duc­tion of Tee Ball, a sim­pli­fied ver­sion of base­ball for chil­dren as young as four.

By push­ing young chil­dren into team sports for which they are not devel­op­men­tal­ly ready, we rule out forms of play that once encour­aged them to learn skills of inde­pen­dence and cre­ativ­i­ty. Instead of learn­ing on their own in back­yards, fields, and on side­walks, chil­dren are only learn­ing to do what adults tell them to do. More­over, one study found that many chil­dren who start play­ing soc­cer at age four are burned out on that sport by the time they reach ado­les­cence, just the age when they might tru­ly enjoy and excel at it.

Bring back play

Play is moti­vat­ed by plea­sure. It is instinc­tive and part of the mat­u­ra­tional process. We can­not pre­vent chil­dren from self-ini­ti­at­ed play; they will engage in it when­ev­er they can. The prob­lem is that we have cur­tailed the time and oppor­tu­ni­ties for such play. Obvi­ous­ly we can­not turn the clock back and reverse the tech­no­log­i­cal, social, and eco­nom­ic changes that have helped silence chil­dren’s play. Tele­vi­sion, com­put­ers, new fam­i­ly mod­els, and glob­al­iza­tion are here to stay.

What is impor­tant is bal­ance. If a child spends an hour on the com­put­er or watch­ing TV, equal time should be giv­en to play­ing with peers or engag­ing in indi­vid­ual activ­i­ties like read­ing or crafts. It is impor­tant to involve the child in mak­ing these deci­sions and set­ting the para­me­ters for how they spend their time. If we give chil­dren some own­er­ship of the rules, they are usu­al­ly more will­ing to fol­low them than when they are sim­ply imposed from above. It is also impor­tant to appre­ci­ate indi­vid­ual dif­fer­ences. You will not be able to keep some chil­dren from play­ing sports, while oth­ers pre­fer more seden­tary activities.

Anoth­er way we can help bring play back into chil­dren’s lives is to have schools restore recess for at least half an hour. As research demon­strates, aca­d­e­mics are unlike­ly to suf­fer from this change; if any­thing, they’ll ben­e­fit. Schools also argue that they can­not afford recess because of high insur­ance costs and par­ents’ greater appetite for lit­i­ga­tion. But when I speak with insur­ance offi­cers about this issue, they claim that argu­ment is overblown. Either way, chil­dren could still be tak­en out­side, or to the gym, for cal­is­then­ics to exer­cise their bodies.

We must also address the more gen­er­al prob­lem of test-dri­ven cur­ric­u­la in today’s schools. When teach­ers are forced to teach to the test, they become less inno­v­a­tive in their teach­ing meth­ods, with less room for games and imag­i­na­tion. More cre­ative teach­ing meth­ods build upon chil­dren’s inter­ests and atti­tudes their play­ful dis­po­si­tion and this encour­ages them to enjoy their teach­ers, which in turn enhances their inter­est in the sub­ject mat­ter. Though com­put­ers are one of the forces lim­it­ing play, they can be cre­ative­ly used in the ser­vice of play­ful learn­ing. As more young teach­ers who are pro­fi­cient in tech­nol­o­gy enter the schools, we will have the first true edu­ca­tion­al reform in decades, if not centuries.

But you don’t have to be a teacher to help bring back play. Many neigh­bor­hoods bad­ly need more play­grounds. This was also the case in the 1930s; in response, we saw the “play­ground move­ment,” when local com­mu­ni­ties set up their own play­grounds. A new play­ground move­ment is long over­due, espe­cial­ly for our inner city neigh­bor­hoods, where safe play spaces are often in short sup­ply. A play­ground should be required of any new large-scale hous­ing development.

We could go fur­ther. In Scan­di­na­vian coun­tries, there are play areas in even the best restau­rants, as well as in air­ports and train sta­tions. These coun­tries appre­ci­ate the impor­tance of play for healthy devel­op­ment, and we could well fol­low their example.

Final­ly chil­dren do as we do, not as we say. That gives us incen­tive to bring play back into our adult lives. We can shut off the TVs and take our chil­dren with us on out­door adven­tures. We should get less exer­cise in the gym and more on hik­ing trails and bas­ket­ball courts. We can also make work more play­ful: Busi­ness­es that do this are among the most suc­cess­ful. Seat­tle’s Pike Fish Mar­ket is a case in point. Work­ers throw fish to one anoth­er, engage the cus­tomers in repar­tee, and appear to have a grand time. Some com­pa­nies, such as Google, have made play an impor­tant part of their cor­po­rate cul­ture. Study after study has shown that when work­ers enjoy what they do and are well-reward­ed and rec­og­nized for their con­tri­bu­tions, they like and respect their employ­ers and pro­duce high­er qual­i­ty work. For exam­ple, when the Rohm and Hass Chem­i­cal com­pa­ny in Ken­tucky reor­ga­nized its work­place into self-reg­u­lat­ing and self-reward­ing teams, one study found that work­er griev­ances and turnover declined, while plant safe­ty and pro­duc­tiv­i­ty improved.

When we adults unite play, love, and work in our lives, we set an exam­ple that our chil­dren can fol­low. That just might be the best way to bring play back into the lives of our chil­dren‚ and build a more play­ful culture.

David ElkindDavid Elkind, Ph.D., is a pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of child devel­op­ment at Tufts Uni­ver­si­ty and the author of the books The Hur­ried Child, Mise­d­u­ca­tion, and, most recent­ly, The Pow­er of Play: Learn­ing That Comes Nat­u­ral­ly. Copy­right Greater Good. Greater Good Mag­a­zine, based at UC-Berke­ley, is a quar­ter­ly mag­a­zine that high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tif­ic research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altruism.


  1. Sandra Fischetti on June 17, 2008 at 11:54

    I found this arti­cle very insight­ful about the need for chil­dren to learn through play­ing. It seems that chil­dren’s lives are often too struc­tured by adults to allow spon­ta­neous play­ing. I think the lack of play­time stunts a child’s self-ini­tia­tive, imag­i­na­tion, and creativity.

  2. Alvaro on June 18, 2008 at 7:05

    San­dra: I could­n’t agree more. We typ­i­cal­ly encour­age peo­ple not to “out­source their brains”…, and indeed this applies to chil­dren’s devel­op­ment too: if we (adults) make most deci­sions for them, they won’t devel­op their capac­i­ties as much. Learn­ing in a Safe Space (Play) is important.

  3. Ray on July 1, 2008 at 3:35

    It is not only that play is dis­cour­aged. Chil­dren do not real­ly play,“This is what they do”, they work at learn­ing all the time, it is not play. Play is an adult con­cept for some­thing that seems unpro­duc­tive. Do I hear Tiger W about now?
    Any­way it is not only the lack of play time that seems to be an issue, it is the lack of con­trolled risk that chil­dren are allowed to engage in. If a child has nev­er learned the effects of falling out of a 5 foot tree at 5 years of age, they do not realise the effect of dri­ving a 25 valve, pock­et rock­et car into a tree when they are 17. Play, risk, hurt, ouch, think.

About SharpBrains

SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.
SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

Top Articles on Brain Health and Neuroplasticity

Top 10 Brain Teasers and Illusions


Subscribe to our e-newsletter

* indicates required

Got the book?