The cognitive benefits of play: Effects on the learning brain
© 2008 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved
Science confirms our intuitions about the benefits of play.
Play appears to have important positive effects on the brain and on a child’s ability to learn.
Here are a few examples of the cognitive benefits of play.
Play opportunities improve memory and stimulate the growth of the cerebral cortex
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 research confirmed the results—rats raised stimulating environments had bigger brains.
They were smarter, too—able to find their way through mazes more quickly (Greenough and Black 1992).
Do these benefits of play extend to humans? Ethical considerations prevent us from performing similar experiments on kids. But it seems very likely that human brains respond to play and exploration in similar ways.
Play and exploration trigger the secretion of BDNF, a substance essential for the growth of brain cells
Again--no one has figured out an ethical way to test this on humans, so the evidence comes from rats: After bouts of rough-and-tumble play, rats show increased levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) in their brains (Gordon et al 2003). BDNF is essential for the growth and maintenance of brain cells. BDNF levels are also increased after rats are allowed to explore (Huber et al 2007).
Kids pay more attention to academic tasks when they are given frequent, brief opportunities for free play
Several experimental studies show that school kids pay more attention to academics after they’ve had recess--an unstructured break in which kids are free to play without direction from adults (see Pellegrini and Holmes 2006 for a review).
There is some circumstantial evidence, too: Chinese and Japanese students, who are among the best achievers in the world, attend schools that provide short breaks every 50 minutes (Stevenson and Lee 1990).
Note that physical education classes are not effective substitutes for free playtime (Bjorkland and Pellegrini 2000).
Physical exercise has important cognitive benefits in its own right.
But physical education classes don't deliver the same benefits as recess. Researchers suspect that's because PE classes are too structured and rely too much on adult-imposed rules. To reap all the benefits of play, a play break must be truly playful.
How long should recess be? No one knows for sure, but it seems possible that recesses are most effective when they last between 10 and 30 minutes. One 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).
Language and the benefits of play
Studies reveal a link between play--particularly symbolic, pretend play--and the development of language skills. For example:
Psychologist Edward Fisher analyzed 46 published studies of the cognitive benefits of play (Fisher 1999). He found that “sociodramatic play”—what happens when kids pretend together—“results in improved performances in both cognitive-linguistic and social affective domains.”
A study of British children, aged 1-6 years, measured kids’ capacity for symbolic play (Lewis et al 2000). Kids were asked to perform such symbolic tasks as substituting a teddy bear for an absent object. Researchers found that kids who scored higher on a test of symbolic play had better language skills—both receptive language (what a child understands) and expressive language (the words she speaks). These results remained significant even after controlling for the age of the child.
Recent research also suggests that playing with blocks contributes to language development. For more information, see this article about
construction toys and the benefits of play.
Play promotes creative problem solving
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.
Some research suggests that the way kids play contributes to their ability to solve divergent problems.
For instance, in one experiment, researchers presented preschoolers with two types of play materials (Pepler and Ross 1981). Some kids were given materials for convergent play (i.e., puzzle pieces). Other kids were given materials for divergent play (blocks). Kids were given time to play and then were tested on their ability to solve problems.
The results? Kids given divergent play materials performed better on divergent problems. They also showed more creativity in their attempts to solve the problems (Pepler and Ross 1981).
Another experimental study reported links between pretend play and divergent problem-solving ability (Wyver and Spence 1999). Kids given training in pretend play showed an increased ability to solve divergent problems. And the converse was true as well: Kids trained to solve divergent problems showed increased rates of pretend play.
Math skills and the benefits of play
Here’s an intriguing story:
A longitudinal study measured the complexity of children’s block play at age 4 and then tracked their academic performance through high school (Wolfgang, Stannard, & Jones, 2001).
Researchers found that the complexity of block play predicted kids’ mathematics achievements in high school. In particular, those who had used blocks in more sophisticated ways as preschoolers had better math grades and took more math courses (including honors’ courses) as teenagers.
Ho-hum, you say-—these results just tell us that kids who are smart in preschool continue to be smart in high school.
But it’s not that simple. The association between block play and math performance remained even after researchers controlled for a child’s IQ. It therefore seems plausible that block play itself influenced the cognitive development of these kids.
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.
In addition, see my blog posts for BabyCenter.
"When 'daycare' was run by kids" talks about the most common pattern of child's play in human history--the mixed age playgroup.
"Should kids be grouped by age?" considers the possible benefits of these mixed age playgroups for young children.
In "Lack of free play harms kids," I talk about the speculations of psychologist Peter Gray.
References: The cognitive benefits of play
For a popular defense of the benefits of play, check out the book Einstein never used flash cards: How our children REALLY learn--and why they need to play more and memorize less by developmental psychologists Kathy Hirsch-Pasek, Roberta Michnick Golinkoff and Diane Eyer (Rodale 2003). It's a great resource for parents who want to resist the pressure to "over-program" their children's lives. The authors discuss the cognitive benefits of play and make many research-based suggestions for making playtime more stimulating and educational.
And here are the scientific studies cited in this article:
Bjorkland DF and Pellegrini AD. 2000. Child development and evolutionary psychology. Child Development 71: 1687-1708.
Dickinson, D.K., & Tabors, P.O. (Eds.) (2001). Beginning literacy with language: Young children learning at home and school. Baltimore: Paul Brookes Publishing.
Fisher, Edward P. (1992). The impact of play on development: A meta-analysis. Play and Culture, 5(2), 159-181.
Gordon NS, Burke S, Akil H, Watson SJ, and Panskepp J. 2003. Socially-induced brain ‘fertilization’: play promotes brain derived neurotrophic factor transcription in the amygdala and dorsolateral frontal cortex in juvenile rats. Neuroscience Letters 341(1): 17-20.
Greenough WT and Black JE. Induction of brain structure by experience: substrates for cognitive development. In: Gunnar MR, Nelson CA, eds. Minnesota Symposia on Child Psychology: Developmental Neuroscience. Vol 24. Hillside, NJ: Lawrence A Erlbaum Associates; 1992:155-200.
Huber R, Tonini G, and Cirelli C. 2007. Exploratory behavior, cortical BDNF expression, and sleep homeostasis. Sleep 30(2):129-39.
Lewis P, Boucher J, Lupton L and Watson S. 2000. Relationships between symbolic play, functional play, verbal and non-verbal ability in young children. Int J Lang Commun Disord. 35(1):117-27.
Pelligrini AD and Holmes RM. 2006. The role of recess in primary school. In D.Singer, R. Golinkoff, & K. Hirsh-Pasek (Eds.), Play=learning: How play motivates and enhances children’s cognitive and socio-emotional growth. New York: Oxford University Press.
Pepler DJ and Ross HS. 1981. The effects of play on convergent and divergent problem solving. Child Development 52(4): 1202-1210.
Stevenson HW and Lee SY. 1990.Contexts of achievement: a study of American, Chinese, and Japanese children. Monogr Soc Res Child Dev. 55(1-2):1-123.
Wyver SR and Spence SH. 1999. Play and divergent problem solving: Evidence supporting a reciprocal relationship. Early Education and Development, 10(4): 419 - 444
Wolfgang, Charles H.; Stannard, Laura L.; & Jones, Ithel. (2001). Block play performance among preschoolers as a predictor of later school achievement in mathematics. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 15(2), 173-180.
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