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Play: It’s Pretty Powerful

What looks like just fun and games is playing a huge role in a child’s brain development.

A group of four boys jumping up for a ball


“Play is behavior that looks as if it has no purpose,” says NIH psychologist Dr. Stephen Suomi. “It looks like fun, but it actually prepares [kids] for a complex social world.” Play is a child’s number one job. It may look like it’s just “playing around” as the name implies, but it is so crucial for their development.

In a 2017 survey, 42 percent of parents shared that their kids play four to six days per week, 30 percent play one to three days per week, 24 percent play every day and four percent claim their children do not play at all. The benefits of play are applicable to all ages, but there is definitely a period where it is most crucial… the critical period.

“Play is one of the main ways that children really consolidate their learning. The way we really make our skills permanent and enriched and highly developed, is often through our play experiences.” —Doris Bergen, a professor at Miami University’s Department of Educational Psychology

Play creates new neural networks and reinforces them. These physical changes in brain structure are what enable learning and growth to occur, known as neuroplasticity. Play plays a huge role in this!

If Play is Physical Activity

When play is physical activity too, such as playing sports or tag outside, it has so many additional benefits. For starters, it helps children build their physical development: fine and gross! Having to make big movements helps them build their gross motor development, such as if they are running around. They can build their hand-eye-coordination as they work to catch and throw a ball. Children are also building their fine motor development as they grasp things while they play, such as picking up smaller items.

In addition to all of this, physical activity has sooooooo many benefits on the developing brain, or any brain! Check out our physical activity blog post for more info! It can prevent neurodegenerative decline and improve mental health significantly - and just make you feel good!! The benefits of physical activity are definitely inside and out!

Language Development

When play includes a verbal aspect- whether it’s playing pretend or just talking and conversing while playing, it can help children build their language skills significantly!

Children’s vocabulary builds as they play. They may learn new names for different nouns or learn new verbs that describe what they are doing and seeing. When kids are playing with their caregivers for example, those adults can help foster that growing language development by prompting them to use new words.

Social Development

Playing often incorporates many social skills, especially when kids are playing in groups often. Through these group activities, they must share with others, problem solve, and build their communication skills. They learn many social norms and expectations as they play and must resolve conflicts with others as they arise. On top of all of this, the children playing develop a sense of responsibility and empathy towards others. Social activities provide children with instant feedback on how they are communicating with others. They gain a better understanding of expression, body language, and how their actions affect others. It can also make them more confident!

As problems arise, not only do children learn to solve them effectively, they also must regulate their emotions while doing so. As extreme frustration may build up, they learn to effectively regulate these emotions as they play more and their brains develop.

These skills build over time and through active application, such as playing with others, this development can be catalyzed.

Takeaways: The Benefits of Play

As play is consistently replaced with more screen time and recess time is jeopardized in many schools across the country for more instruction time, we must remind ourselves that so much learning and joy comes from those moments of play.


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