Children May Be Playing, but Their Brains Are Working

How does play help children?

How does play help children? 

*First author is Caroline Thompson

People tend to think of play as a break for the brain. We think we are relaxing, zoning out, allowing our brain some time off. In reality, however, several important things happen in the brain as we play! Play affects the brain in lots of ways that have crucial outcomes later in life.

Why is play so important? A newborn baby has over 2 billion brain cells, but connections between these brain cells have not yet been developed and will constitute the majority of the 75 percent of the brain left to grow after birth (Sunderland, 2006). The vast majority of brain growth occurs in the first five years of life. Play builds needed neuronal connections that will influence memory, learning, emotional regulation, and social intelligence for years to come. Let’s examine a couple of types of play. 

Physical, social interactive play includes activities like rough-and-tumble play, running, and jumping. This high-energy play is common behavior among mammals. It has several benefits.

  • Prevention of symptoms characteristic of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). In an experiment using hyperactive rats, play therapy was able to reduce hyperactivity and excessive playfulness (Panksepp, et al., 2003). In normal rats, 20 minutes of rough-and-tumble play each day enhanced inhibitory and attentional behavior, which is beneficial to the treatment of ADHD ((Panksepp, et al., 2003).
  • Social intelligence. Play fosters the development of an area of the brain called the orbitofrontal cortex and its linkages to other parts of the brain and plays a large role in decision-making (Pellis & Pellis, 2007). With the freedom that comes with this kind of play, children have the opportunity to make a poor choice and learn from that to make better choices. Playmates assist the child in learning appropriate responses. Adult playmates can turn these instances into “teachable moments,” so the child may come to understand social expectations (Panksepp, 2007).
  • Emotion regulation. Not only does engaging in play (especially 30 minutes before bedtime) reduce sleep problems for children, but it can also reduce the onset of childhood and adult depression (Panksepp, 2007).
  • Another form of play is creative which involves make believe, imaginative toys, and places to explore. Remember climbing a favorite tree or building a fort under the dining room table? Benefits of creative play are multiple.
  • Learning and memory capacities. In an experiment with rats, one group was given an enriched environment for play, including tunnels, wheels, and other toys, while the other group was deprived of such a space. Two months later, the rats in the enriched environment contained 50,000 more brain cells in the hippocampus when compared to their counterparts in the standard play area (Carper, 2000). The hippocampus is crucial to memory and learning. An enriched play environment with places to explore is important for children!
  • Emotion regulation, social competence and engagement. In a study of 5-7 year olds, pretend play was assessed in a school setting. The authors found that pretend play was positively related to involvement in school activities and interacting with peers in play, while negatively related to social disconnection and disruption (Uren & Stagnitti, 2009).

Drawbacks of a lack of play. What happens when children don’t get enough time for free play? A child deficient in play tended to have a more difficult time engaging in school activities (Uren & Stagnitti, 2009). Thus, engaging in make believe actually can help a child navigate social situations and actively participate in real life.

Pointers to parents about playful arousal of brain activity in your child:

  • Don’t feel that a highly technological game is the only way to activate your child’s brain.
  • With infants, make up your own games. Researcher Colwyn Trevarthen shows that babies are ready to play from birth. 
  • With toddlers, let them explore safely whenever possible.
  • With preschoolers, play make believe.
  • With school-aged children, make time for climbing, running, swinging, and being silly. 

Who knew developing a healthy, skilled brain could be so effortlessly fun?


Carper, J. (2000). Your Miracle Brain, Harper Collins, New York: 31-32.

Panksepp, J. et al. (2003). Modeling ADHD-type arousal with unilateral frontal cortex damage in rats and beneficial effects of play therapy, Brain and Cognition.

Panksepp, J. (2007). Can play diminish ADHD and facilitate the construction of the social brain? Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry / Journal De l’Académie Canadienne De Psychiatrie De l’Enfant Et De l’Adolescent, 16(2), 57-66.)

Panksepp, J., Burgdorf, J., Turner, C., & Gordon, N. (2003). Modeling ADHD-type arousal with unilateral frontal cortex damage in rats and beneficial effects of play therapy. Brain and Cognition, 52(1), 97-105. doi:10.1016/S0278-2626(03)00013-7

Pellis, S. M., & Pellis, V. C. (2007). Rough-and-tumble play and the development of the social brain. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16(2), 95-98. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8721.2007.00483.x

Sunderland, M. (2006). The Science of Parenting, DK Publishing, New York.

Uren, N., & Stagnitti, K. (2009). Pretend play, social competence and involvement in children aged 5–7 years: The concurrent validity of the child-initiated pretend play assessment. Australian Occupational Therapy Journal, 56(1), 33-40. doi:

* Caroline Thompson was a student at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, USA

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