What Is Play? Science Explains Why Kids That Play Well Thrive

Play is as essential to kids as parent bonding and vitamin D. Kids not only want to play, they need to play to better understand the world. And this need drives parents to sports practices and afterschool programs in search of appropriate forums for play, and to toy stores in search of appropriate tools. Humans instinctively understand the need for play and cater to it. But ask someone, anyone, what play is and they’re unlikely to be able to define it. Ask an expert in childhood development for a clinical definition, and they’ll likely recite something disconcertingly broad and heavy to hold.

A common exchange might go something like this:

What is play?

“Play is innate.”

But what is it?

“It’s an aspect of biological, psychological, and social development.”

So why do they do it?

“Kids play to make sense of their world and practice things they have learned and observed, practice new skills, interact with others, and to communicate.”

The initially broad answers above come courtesy of child behavior expert Stacy Stefaniak Luther, PsyD, a counselor and play therapist. And they are actually pretty good answers; they just require unpacking. Play defies a simple, straightforward definition because it’s mutable and mutating. Infant play transforms into toddler play and so-on across a series of blurry “stages” before taking on social or professional or even gendered baggage. And it looks entirely different from person to person.

One thing we know for sure — play is essential to childhood.

Time spent playing is correlated with emotional stability, better grades, more sleep, improved social skills, advanced motor function, boosted focus, diminished stress, decreased anger, increased creativity, and just plain happiness. Parents should want kids to play. A lot. But before they can start encouraging play behaviors, they need to understand what they are. What does play look like? It starts with eye contact — we’re talking weeks out of the womb — and catalyzes quickly from there.

Playing With Baby

Gravity is our first playmate. Take this classic high chair scene: A kid picks up a utensil or sippy cup, and drops it on the floor. Over and over, they are handed the object, dangle it over the edge, and let ‘er drop — all while beaming, laughing, and watching with clear fascination. Not only are they getting mom or dad to jump and react, they’re making a loud bang, and they’re watching an object completely disappear.

“If this repetitive throwing feels like a game, it’s because it is,” says KinderCare Learning Center Chief Academic Officer Elanna S. Yalow, Ph.D. “But it’s also exploring physics, cause and effect, and testing the responsiveness of a caregiver. It displays the innate scientific thought that babies have.”

While the high chair drop is one of the first recognizable forms of play-learning and offers the clear through-line that learning is a consistent element of play. Once babies begin to taste, feel, hear and smell as well as see, they’ll do things considered play. Infants’ recognition of their own random movements are the first observable signs of play, says Stefaniak Luther, but the stage is set even before this, when eye contact and back and forth interactions begin between parent and infant shortly after birth.

“These interactions set the base for building play skills,” says Stefaniak Luther. At five months, play is in full swing. Infants begin to learn the cause and effect of exploring tools, such as rattles and fabric books, with their hands and mouth. Just about everything that isn’t wailing or a bowel movement is a part of play at this point in life.

Babies and adults play in much the same way. When playing a card game or, say, bowling, adults explore cause and effect, tweaking the experiment, and aiming to perfect the goal — by playing the right cards or sending the ball into a just-right spin down the lane. The main difference between adult and baby play is that of consequences. If the adult plays poorly, they lose the game. If the kid fails to play, their very social and cognitive development is at stake.

How Play Happens

“The spontaneity of play is not just a thing, it’s the thing,” says Michael Alcée, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Tarrytown, New York.

“Spontaneity” can be described as a response to an impulse. It’s crucial to play because play starts when we’re more connected to our imaginative right-brained side, Alcée explains. That’s when we’re closer to the magic of wonder, curiosity, and spontaneity, or what Alcée calls the “building blocks of the later, more sophisticated forms of creativity that artists, scientists, and innovators bring to the table.”

Researchers who have studied how kids determine whether something is fun debate over whether “construction” is a type of play. Building something, for some experts, has an end goal so is not purposeless enough to be considered play. But when a kid inevitably goes off-script with their LEGO set, there’s broad consensus play kicks in again.

The need for spontaneity also defines a particular environment that is needed to foster play. “Play is a paradox,” Alcée says. “Kids need to feel free enough to play but also safe enough in their environment to engage in it and reap play’s developmental benefits.” In other words, parents need less to set the stage than to get out of the way and let the fun begin.

While this is natural enough for an infant or toddler, a school-age kid might have more trouble finding such an environment. This in no small part parrots the reasoning for the birth of the Montessori method of education, “based on self-directed activity, hands-on learning and collaborative play.” This line, ripped from the About Page of a Montessori school in the Pacific Northwest, could have just as easily come from a play researcher. The idea is much the same: set the stage for play and get out of the way.

Pretending and Make Believe

The two-year-old in a fireman’s hat pushing their toy shopping cart around the house making a “wee-oh, wee-oh!” noise; the kid (and the age range is wide for this one), spreading their arms like wings and flying like a plane, bird, or superhero; the group of children sitting around action figures making up a story about their day. These are all examples of pretend play, which typically develops between 18 to 24 months. At first, children begin to use symbolic thinking — like using a hairbrush as a microphone — and by age 3 or 4, they start engaging in pretend play that is elaborate and collaborative. From there, the stories and symbols build on each other and the world gets more and more complicated. For proof, go ask a 10-year-old about their personal superhero mythology. Be sure to set aside a few hours.

Psychologist Lev Vygotsky, a 20th century “founding father” of the study of play alongside Jean Piaget, considered pretend play to be a leading factor in child development, fostering creativity and creative problem-solving. Not all researchers agree with that, but some studies indicate a link between pretending behaviors and later cognitive development and abilities, including language and reading skills. In a 2010 study, at-risk preschoolers who received vocabulary tutoring performed better on a vocabulary test when the tutoring was combined with a play program. Although it sounds counterintuitive, pretend play actually helped kids better separate fantasy from reality, a 1977 study found.

“In pretend play, reinforcement comes from ongoing pleasure with peers as the game progresses,” says Stefaniak Luther. “The interaction itself promotes prosocial skills because the peer(s) will want to continue to play and will also pull away or give feedback if they are not enjoying the interaction for any reason. Pulling away from play serves as an unspoken notice that the interaction was not positive and provides the opportunity to learn and adapt behavior in future interactions.” In other words, it’s actually a learning opportunity when your kid announces they’re taking the ball and going home.

The Types of Play

When kids play, they don’t just sit around telling stories to each other. By the time they’re toddlers, play, to some extent, includes imagination, physicality, and objects.

Physical play, the most “endangered” type of play according to the Minnesota Children’s Museum Dr. Rachel E. White, is one of the least researched forms. Object play is the playful manipulation of objects. It can be as simple as throwing a rock or as complex as putting together the 10,000-piece LEGO Harry Potter Hogwart’s School set. Both of these forms of play start young. The aforementioned random movements of a weeks-old baby count to many as the start of physical play. Researchers agree that object play usually begins around 1 (one 1993 study concluded that babies around 1-year-old are capable of trying to duplicate the noise a horn or castanet makes when presented with a similar-looking object). Many think it starts earlier.

Creative play comes later when kids have a grasp on open-ended materials and can practice representational play, such as a using a banana as a telephone, Yalow says. Open-ended materials also allow kids to use their imaginations and think symbolically, as well as figure out multiple uses for an object, such as a box that’s an airplane one day and a train the next.

Add socialization — another crucial piece of the play puzzle — and you get something all the more complex. A toddler soccer game is more than just kids engaging in a game with parameters set by adults. As any parent who has watched their toddler “play soccer” knows, the game is practicing physical coordination, self-regulation of emotions (i.e., calming down once the game ends), paying attention and taking direction, exploring the physics of a ball and field, and interacting with others. When conflict arises during play — and this goes for all social play — children learn to negotiate, how to advocate for themselves and how to deal with frustration. In other words, kids’ soccer is hardly about the parent-imposed rules of the game. Play, on the kids’ terms, finds a way.

Game Theory

The reason children often struggle to play organized sports in the same manner as adults has to do with the type of play that is innate to childhood and the type of play that is not. From a game theory perspective, soccer is a closed game. Each contest is confined by lines, time, rules and the idea that someone can win. Pretty much all sports operate this way, but closed games are unusual for children.

Children normally play more open games, which mutate as they proceed. Unlike soccer, a game of make-believe is likely to end with a different structure than it started with. A princess becomes an astronaut and a moat becomes the surface of the moon. Rules are discarded and willfully misinterpreted. The goal of the game becomes the continuation of the game on more or less equal terms by each player. The game is, in short, not only the game, but the game of constantly deciding what the game could be. (Consider Calvinball the best possible example of this phenomenon.)

Game theory considers collective and individual decision-making and there’s a reason why. Games represent a specific type of social play that requires such decision-making and actually models it. Games teach us how to make decisions and open games and closed games teach children how to make different types of decisions in different scenarios. That said, exposure to closed games in the absence of open games (an issue in the age of the over-scheduled kid) might represent a risk. Life is more like an open game.

Video games offer a specific conundrum for play experts. These worlds can give the impression of being open given the extent of their world, but are essentially closed, driven by rules and a winner-take-all model. Such a mentality works well if you play games for a living, but represents a flawed model for those who do not. Open play has, at least from a rational and strategic perspective, far more to teach us about how to be in the world.

Alcée looks at it from another, psychological perspective. “If they’re primarily used as a distraction and retreat from reality, then they are not as creative and psychologically valuable,” he says. “But video gaming has definite pluses in terms of problem-solving, deep engagement with narrative and character, creativity, and even nowadays, a large social component.”

The Importance of Play

Compelling evidence on the import of play is found in research on kids who don’t have as many opportunities to play. Dr. Doris Bergen from the University of Miami notes in her study, The Role of Pretend Play in Children’s Cognitive Development, that a long-term lack of opportunity for play had a negative effect on the development of literacy, math and science skills.

When there’s too much unmediated reality, or trauma, coming into the child’s world, they temporarily shut down, and this shunts the natural capacity for play. “Spontaneous exploration, curiosity and integration get sidelined and are instead replaced with hard vigilance, an overtaxed survival instinct that doesn’t allow the child enough freedom and relaxation to be playful,” Alcée says. “In addition, the child loses the capacity to bring words or symbols to what their experience is, and so it goes offline as if it really isn’t there.”

The lack of play has consequences. Bergen notes that when imaginative play especially is put on hold, we can expect perspective-taking, abstract thought, problem-solving, language development, and academic skills all to be retarded. A recent study, published in PLoS One, found social play not only enhances children’s joy in learning and teachers’ enjoyment of teaching, it reduces bullying and peer ostracism. Quality play for kids takes a crucial role in a wide variety of cognitive and social development.

Fortunately, there’s a solve for kids whose play has been thwarted by trauma or outside influences: More play. Although their capacity for it is damaged by trauma, play is an important tool to help traumatized kids heal. “Play can be particularly important for children who have been exposed to toxic stress,” Yalow says. “Development of executive function skills can help build resilience, and play can be used to develop these essential life skills.”

For others, play reads as something like a cure-all for kids. “Play captures and captivates, stimulating synaptic formation and challenging cognition,” says Dr. Jack Maypole, associate professor of pediatrics at Boston University School of Medicine, director of the Comprehensive Care Program at Boston Medical Center. “It helps little brains that are hungry for new experiences and relationships learn to pay attention and focus. Joy and laughter cement the process together.”

If there is one takeaway from the science of play it would likely be that, as Maypole puts it, “fun is motivation.” Now there’s a rule to parent by.

4 Ways To Foster Play

Parents can help children get the most out of play and use it to strengthen the parent-child bond. But you don’t want to help too much. “Guiding play can be fine, but one needs to be careful to give enough room for the unknown to take shape,” Alcée says. Here’s what that means on a practical level.

  • Embrace your kid’s story. Parents should try to stay within the metaphor, characters or form children initiate. This means it’s essential to be patient and go with the flow in children’s games.
  • Let the block tower fall. “As your children learn to practice and try again, they will develop critical-thinking skills, initiative and creativity,” says Lee Scott, chair of the educational advisory board for The Goddard School, a national early childhood education franchise.
  • Don’t force socialization. When children engage in “parallel play,” they play in the same area and perhaps with similar toys but are not doing the same thing, sharing or interacting with another child. This is fine.
  • Don’t look for meaning. “Sometimes the best thing a parent can do is set aside their own notions of what should happen during play and simply let their child lead the way,” Yalow says.