The social and cognitive benefits of play: Effects on the learning brain

Science supports many of our intuitions about the emotional and cognitive benefits of play. Playful behavior appears to have positive effects on the brain and on a child’s ability to learn. Want specifics? Here are some examples.

children making sandcastles on the beach

Animal experiments: Social play and exploration stimulates brain growth, and improves memory and problem-solving ability

In 1964, Marion Diamond and her colleagues published an exciting paper about brain growth in rats. The neuroscientists had conducted a landmark experiment, raising some rats in boring, solitary confinement, and others in exciting, toy-filled colonies. When researchers examined the rats’ brains, they discovered that the “enriched” rats had thicker cerebral cortices than did the “impoverished” rats (Diamond et al 1964).

Subsequent studies confirmed the results: Rodents raised in stimulating environments – with lots of opportunities for play – develop thicker brain cortices (Greenough and Black 1992; Han et al 2022). Moreover, research indicates that social play and exploration lead to neurogenesis – the birth of new brain cells – in the dentate gyrus, a part of the hippocampus that plays a key role in learning and memory (Barros et al 2019). And these critters act smarter, too. They are able to find their way through mazes — and solve other problems — more quickly (e.g., Greenough and Black 1992; Trezza et al 2011; Neal et al 2018).

On the flip side, animals suffer worse outcomes when they don’t play. For instance, in one experiment, researchers monitored the development of the prefrontal cortex – a part of the brain that regulates self-control, cognitive flexibility, and the inhibition of impulses. When juvenile rats were deprived of opportunities for unrestricted social play, they developed fewer inhibitory synapses in the prefrontal cortex, and they experienced impaired cognitive skills as adults (Bijlsma et al 2022).

How exactly does playful activity and environmental enrichment lead to changes in brain development?

Researchers are still trying to figure it out (Barros et al 2019), but one line of evidence concerns brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or “BDNF,” a molecule manufactured in our brain cells that helps neurons grow, survive, and form synapses. BDNF levels increase after animals engage in various kinds of play – including rough-and-tumble play (see below), exploration, and the investigation of toys (Gordon et al 2003; Huber et al 2007; Cao et al 2014). Moreover, these enriching experiences appear to reverse losses of BDNF caused by early life stress (e.g., Zhang et al 2022; Joushi et al 2021).

Observational research: Physical, “rough-and-tumble” play is linked with greater social competence

“Rough-and-tumble” play includes playful fighting, wrestling, and chasing, and it’s much more than a way to let off steam. Across a wide range of species, youngsters hone their motor skills, and learn crucial lessons about getting along with others. Juveniles must learn how to signal their friendly intentions, and restrain their exertions so they don’t hurt each other. They must learn how to “self-handicap”, so they can play with individuals who are weaker or less skilled. And they must pay attention to social cues so they can cooperate and switch roles – playing the aggressor or dominant individual on some occasions, and the defender at other times (Fry 2005; Smith and StGeorge 2022).

father and son laughing and tumbling on the floor, boy is on top

Among humans, rough-and-tumble play typically begins during the toddler years, and it’s frequently associated with fathers, although this varies cross-culturally. In Western societies, young children seem to benefit socially when their fathers engage them high quality rough-and-tumble play…where “high quality” means the parent is affectionate, sensitive, and keeps the interactions both challenging and fun. The friendly “combatants” regularly switch roles, so that the child can sometimes gets to “win” or play the dominant role (Fletcher et al 2013; Smith and StGeorge 2022).

When all of this is in place, researchers have noted a trend across studies: Young children who experience lots of quality, rough-and-tumble play tend to be the kids with higher levels of social competence. They have more advanced social skills, and they are more popular with their peers (StGeorge and Freeman 2017).

Outdoor play: Voluntary exercise and exposure to green space can boost mood and attention

Several experimental studies show that school kids pay more attention to academics after they’ve had a recess — an unstructured break in which kids are free to play without direction from adults (see Pellegrini and Holmes 2006 for a review).

What’s going on? In part, it might reflect the effects of physical exercise. As I explain elsewhere, bouts of aerobic exercise may help children concentrate. But this also seems to be a story about the benefits of going outside to play – especially in green spaces. Time spent in green spaces can improve mood, benefit mental health, and sharpen focus, so playing outdoors may be particularly restorative.

For example, in a recent study of kindergartners, researchers directly compared the effects of indoor and outdoor play on children’s attention in the classroom. Kids were more focused after outdoor play (Koepp et al 2022). And in a study of 4th and 5th graders, researchers found that the benefits of outdoor play depended on green space. Kids returned to the classroom with higher levels of concentration only after playing in settings with natural vegetation, such as grass (Amicone et al 2018).

How long should recess be? No one knows for sure, but there is some evidence for recesses between 10 and 30 minutes. In a small study of 4-5 year olds, researchers found that recesses of 10 or 20 minutes enhanced classroom attention. Recesses as long as 30 minutes had the opposite effect (Pelligrini and Holmes 2006).

For more information about the effects of outdoor play, see my article, “12 benefits of outdoor play”.

Pretend play may help kids develop self-regulation, language skills, creativity, and the ability to reason about counterfactuals

Pretend play is a human universal, and one of its functions is clear to see: Around the world, children simulate the activities that see older people perform – like hunting, farming, cooking, or taking care of infants (Lew-Levy et al 2022; Lancy 2008). Pretend play allows young children to rehearse motor sequences that will help them later in life.

Pretend play can also take a dramatic turn, with participants taking on distinct roles, and acting out elaborate scenarios together. And in high-tech, information-based societies, kids may be encouraged to incorporate imaginative, fantastic elements into their make-believe – such as conversations with talking animals, visits to alien planets, or the exploits of superheroes. This kind of creative, sociodramatic play may be particularly valued among middle class and affluent families.

Do the benefits of pretend play extend beyond the opportunity to practice motor skills? There’s reason to think that pretense may help kids develop a range of cognitive abilities, including self-regulation, language competence, and the capacity to reason about different “possible worlds”.

Pretend play might help kids develop self-regulation

Studies report that kids who engage in frequent, pretend play have stronger self-regulation skills, such as the ability to switch back and forth between two sets of rules (like the rules that apply during make-believe and the rules that apply to the real world). And while we need more research to determine if the link is causal (Lillard et al 2013), the data are consistent with this possibility, and the idea has intuitive appeal. When children engage in make-believe, they need to keep track of the difference between pretense and reality. They have to pay attention, coordinate their behavior with others, and restrain their impulses.

Pretend play is linked with language ability

Studies reveal links between play – particularly symbolic, pretend play – and the development of language skills in young children (Fisher 1999; Quinn et al 2018). 

For instance, in a study of British children (aged 1-6 years) researchers asked kids to perform such symbolic tasks as substituting a teddy bear for an absent object (Lewis et al 2000). Children who performed well on these tasks had better language skills—both receptive language (what a child understands) and expressive language (the words a child speaks). And these results remained significant even after controlling for the age of the child.

Does this mean that we can boost children’s language skills by encouraging symbolic, pretend play? Not necessarily. But a few, small, quasi-experimental studies hint that joint games of pretend could help some children build vocabulary (Baumer et al 2005; Levy et al 2000).

(In addition, research suggests that playing with blocks can contribute to language development. For more information, see this Parenting Science article about construction toys and the benefits of play.)

Pretend play is linked with creativity

Psychologists distinguish two types of problem – convergent and divergent. A convergent problem has a single correct solution or answer. A divergent problem yields itself to multiple solutions. And divergent thinking is one aspect of creativity.

Does pretend play help kids become more creative over time? It’s hard to prove, but at least one experimental study hints that its possible. Kids given training in pretend play showed a subsequent increase in their ability to solve divergent problems. Interestingly, researchers also found that the reverse was true: When kids were trained to solve divergent problems, they showed increased rates of pretend play (Wyver and Spence 1999).

Pretend play and possible worlds?

Many researchers have noted similarities between pretend play and counterfactual reasoning, the ability to make inferences about events that have not actually occurred. For example, Alison Gopnik and her colleagues (Walker and Gopnik 2013; Buchsbaum et al 2012) argue that counterfactual reasoning helps us plan and learn by permitting us to think through “what if” scenarios. Pretend play taps into the same skill set. So perhaps pretend play provides children with valuable opportunities to practice reasoning about possible worlds.

In support of this idea, researchers found evidence of a link between counterfactual reasoning and pretend play in middle class American preschoolers: Kids who were good at pretending were also able to respond correctly to counterfactual questions. Moreover, the correlation remained statistically significant even after controlling for other factors, including a child’s ability to suppress his or her impulses (Buchsbaum et al 2012).

More recently, investigators performed similar tests on preschoolers from two low-income populations, one in the United States, and the other in Peru. Once again, kids who performed well during a pretense task were more likely to show competence at counterfactual reasoning (Wente et al 2022).

Social play with dolls helps kids rehearse “mind-reading” skills

In a recent brain scan study, Salim Hashmi and colleagues used functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) to monitor the brains of 33 children (aged 4 to 8) while they played with toys. Sometimes the kids played games on a tablet. On other occasions, they played with dolls.

The researchers looked for activity in the posterior superior temporal sulcus, or pSTS – a brain region associated with social processing and empathy – and they witnessed enhanced activity whenever the kids played with a social partner — as expected. But this brain activity was also high when kids played alone with a doll, suggesting that children were engaging the social brain during solitary doll play.  As the researchers argue, the results are “consistent with the notion that pretend play allows children to practice social interactions even when playing by themselves” (Hashmi et al 2022).

In a follow-up study, Hashmi’s team found that more evidence that kids are rehearsing theory of mind and empathy skills when they play with dolls: Along with stronger activation of the pSTS, kids playing with dolls used more “internal state” language – commenting more on beliefs, feelings, desires, and thoughts  (Hashmi et al 2022).

Block play can stimulate creativity, and enhance an array of cognitive skills

As I explain elsewhere, block play doesn’t just give children the opportunity to practice motor skills. Studies suggest that kids can boost spatial ability by playing with blocks — perhaps especially if they work from templates or blueprints. Such “structured” block play has also been linked with improvements in cognitive flexibility — the ability to switch your attention back and forth between competing stimuli.

In addition, as noted above, block play in toddlers has been linked with better language development (Christakis et al 2007). And when elementary school students used blocks to create their own designs, they went on to display higher levels of divergent thinking — one measure of creativity (Pirrone et al 2018). There’s even reason to think that block play — and perhaps especially structured block play — could help children develop better math skills (e.g., Wolfgang et al 2001; Oostermeijer et al 2014; Schmitt et al 2018; Newman et al 2021). To read the details, see my article, “Why toy blocks rock: The science of construction play.”

What’s the takeaway?

Studies support the idea that many different types of play are beneficial to development — enhancing brain growth and an array of social and cognitive skills. And while we need more research to understand the nuances, certain fundamental points are clear.

Point 1. Most play involves exploration, and exploration is — by definition — a learning activity.

It’s easy to see how this applies to a budding scientist who is playing with magnets. But, as we’ve seen, it also applies to less intellectual pursuits, like rough-and-tumble play, where kids are testing their motor skills and trying on different social roles. Play is learning.

Point 2. Play is self-motivated and fun.

Anything learned during voluntary play is knowledge gained without the perception of hard work. This is in contrast with activities that we perform as duties. When learning is perceived to be arduous, our ability to stay focused may feel like a limited resource that is drained over time (Inzlicht et al 2014). And it’s hard to achieve a state of flow, the psychological experience of being totally, and happily, immersed in what you are doing. Play is an obvious gateway to the state of flow, so it can help kids learn and stay focused on what they are learning.

Point 3. There is empirical evidence that kids treat play as a tutorial for coping with real life challenges.

As noted above, children engage in pretend play that simulates the sorts of activities they will need to master as adults, suggesting such play is a form of practice. And when kids are fed information during pretend play — from more knowledgeable peers or adults — they take it in. Experiments on American preschoolers suggest that children as young as 3 can understand make distinctions between realistic and fanciful pretending, and they use information learned from realistic pretend scenarios to understand the real world (Sutherland and Friedman 2012; 2013).

The bottom line? Giving children play-breaks and making children’s academic lessons more playful isn’t mere sugar-coating. It might be a way to enhance kids’ natural capacities for intense, self-motivated learning.

More information on the benefits of play

For more information about play, see my articles about educational toys and games, and my article about the cognitive benefits of exercise.

References: The cognitive benefits of play

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Content last of the “Cognitive benefits of play” modified 1/2023. Portions of the text are derived from earlier versions of this article, written by the same author.

image of kids making sandcastles on the beach by CandyRetriever / shutterstock

image of happy young boy and father wrestling on the floor by monkeybusiness images / istock

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