The Benefits of Play for Cognitive Development in Children
Giving children the opportunity to experience play during their early years has a huge role in their cognitive development. Through play, they learn how to form conclusions, use reason, come up with creative ideas and understand patience. Each child goes through certain stages of development that can be enhanced and encouraged through their interactions with other children and their environment.
Read the full article or jump to a specific section:
- What Is Cognitive Development?
- What to Expect From Cognitive Development Based on Age
- 10 Benefits of Play For Cognitive Development in Children
What Is Cognitive Development?
The term “cognitive development” refers to a child’s ability to think and use reason. This growth can vary amongst children of different ages and highlight the development of certain skills and intellectual aspects. Proper cognitive development in children is important for information processing and self-recognition, which can be helpful for understanding other people’s perspectives and feelings. It’s also partly responsible for helping a child learn how to compare and contrast ideas, develop their own opinions, and consider possibilities.
A child’s environment can affect the intellectual development process where thinking, memory, and language are concerned. This development can also refer to changes in assimilation and accommodation, in which a child adjusts to new experiences, concepts, and sensations. These experiences may help teach them how to focus on more than one thing at a time and think in concrete and hypothetical ways, which can be useful in academic settings in terms of problem-solving.
This stage is important for children to understand the difference between making observations, gathering information, and analyzing ideas. This kind of thinking can influence decision-making in a child as they begin to demonstrate complex thinking and form their own worldviews. Ultimately, cognitive development in children is a crucial part of building skills that influence adolescence. This growth sets down the path for future success.
What to Expect From Cognitive Development Based on Age
At different stages during the development process, children may begin to feel and express their own emotions while learning new things about themselves and interacting with the world around them. From infancy to childhood to adolescence, you can keep an eye out for particular elements at each age. Keep in mind that many milestones can occur at varying ages for all children, as each child is individual, possessing a unique progress time.
The infancy stage ranges from birth to approximately 2 years old. Here, you may notice that children can slowly begin to identify specific objects in their surroundings. Additionally, infants can often also:
- Express that they’re interested in things
- Pick things up and move them
- Recognize familiar people or objects
- Respond to affection
- Demonstrate curiosity
- Understand gestures or say certain words
- Point to their body parts
- Enjoy playing games like peekaboo
Early and Middle Childhood
The early and middle childhood stage ranges from approximately 3 to 7 years old. These years allow children to further develop various skills. These abilities may include:
- Following instructions
- Doing puzzles and other crafts
- Building things and playing with more complex toys
- Beginning to understand time
- Naming colors and shapes
- Displaying better memory and attention span
- Reading and writing
- Counting numbers effectively
- Using new vocabulary and sentence structures
- Enjoying planning and building things
The early adolescence stage ranges from approximately 8 to 11 years old. Now, cognitive milestones may appear to be more conventional, and children will further develop their unique personalities. A child’s new capabilities may include:
- Understanding others’ perspectives
- Thinking both logically and hypothetically
- Displaying concern for others
- Developing special interests and hobbies
- Interpreting concepts, ideas, and stories
- Becoming more independent
- Describing experiences and emotions
- Demonstrating an improved sense of right and wrong
10 Benefits of Play for Cognitive Development in Children
All children can benefit from playtime in many different ways. These experiences are necessary for children to develop cognitively and introduce them to a world of possibilities. Through play, kids get to safely explore, learn about their environment, and develop skills to interact with others.
Here are 10 ways playing promotes cognitive development and the benefits of play on the brain:
1. Enhances Critical Thinking Skills
Engaging in free play can help teach kids the ability to make decisions and enhance their critical thinking capabilities. These skills can emerge when a child is faced with certain external or internal questions such as why, when, what, or how. Encouraging a child to ask questions about their environment can help them form their own logical conclusions later.
An essential aspect of critical thinking can emerge when children are allowed to make some decisions on their own. Giving a child the proper room to think for themselves and face challenges is a great way to form and sharpen critical thinking skills. Allowing a child to play without a strict set of limits can be beneficial for their growth and development. This way, they’re encouraged to make their own conclusions and progress through different approaches.
Some examples of open-ended play might include:
- Unstructured play
- Question-based games
- Group activities
- Roleplay or pretend play
- Communicating ideas and words through pictures
- Sorting games
- Guessing games or riddles
2. Magnifies the Importance of Senses
A child who learns how to play while using and combining their senses of vision, taste, hearing, touch, and smell will improve their cognitive thinking skills. This is known as sensory play, which can be a vital aspect of the educational process. With their senses, a child can more easily make comparisons or notice differences around them. Additionally, kids can use their senses to learn about their environment and familiarize themselves with new objects.
Providing outdoor sensory play, such as on a playground, is especially helpful for children to learn how to identify varying textures, colors, and smells. Allowing children to utilize their senses can help develop their sensory network as they grow and improve their nerve connections. Specifically, activity panels in sensory play encourage the development of certain motor skills, creativity, and learning how to use descriptors.
The following types of hands-on learning can improve the senses:
- Playing with colored wooden blocks
- Games or toys that have various textures
- Fitting matching shapes together
- Playing with food
- Sorting and classifying different objects
- Sandbox play
- Water play
3. Reinforces Memory and Attention
In particular, playing outside provides a kind of physical exercise that can positively affect the hippocampus, which is mainly responsible for a child’s learning and memory. By playing outdoors often, kids can support the necessary functions they need to remember detailed information, focus on a task, and stimulate neuron growth.
The improvement of motor skills through play can help with working memory capabilities that play a role in cognitive development. Sometimes, children may find it challenging to retain information or instructions. Focusing on activities that boost memory and attention can set them up for success.
Examples of activities that can help reinforce memory and attention span include:
- Card games
- Play that involves visual memory
- Having them recall shapes and colors
- Encouraging them to point out differences in outdoor objects
- Group activities such as “Simon Says” on the playground
- Mixing around objects or toys to increase attention
- Play that consists of switching between specific goals
4. Improves Communication and Language Skills
Learning how to communicate and utilize language is crucial for every child. As they play and interact with other children, they may begin to ask questions that can improve their vocabulary and sentence structure. If they’re playing outside, they can learn to ask for help when climbing a structure or ask a friend to play a game. It’s also helpful to consistently engage in asking children questions that teach them how to respond appropriately to different or new words.
Enhancing communication skills is important for children to interact with others socially. Using their language capabilities, they can come up with ideas with other children or devise a plan for what games to play outside while considering others’ opinions. An outdoor space where children are encouraged to work together can motivate them to communicate in a fun way without any pressure.
A few activities and games that can help with communication skills include:
- Asking them to name objects they see
- Asking them to participate in telling a story
- Name games like “I Spy”
- Scavenger hunts that encourage social interaction
- Trying to promote their use of detail when describing something
5. Allows Learning Through Exploration
An important element of play is that it encourages children to explore and investigate new things, as children are naturally curious. Implementing ways for children to mimic curiosity as natural human behavior can help inspire them to explore more about the world and how it works. Additionally, outdoor play and exploration activities can help kids learn how to imitate others, come up with new ideas, and draw on specific cognitive skills.
Providing an interactive structure, such as a playground, gives children endless opportunities to engage with new concepts and objects that can promote cognitive development and overall learning. Meaningful engagement with materials that support curiosity can help encourage interest in learning and gathering information. Furthermore, creating a sense of wonder in their learning process can make their participation more exciting and enjoyable.
Some ways to implement investigation and exploration in children include:
- Playing detective
- Treasure hunts
- Redirecting their curiosities rather than discouraging them
- Discovery games
- Providing materials that support their interests
- Participating in experiments
- Demonstrating how to make predictions
6. Creates Room for Independence
Additionally, playtime is a great way to improve a child’s sense of independence. When they don’t have a strict set of rules or limitations, their minds will flourish with all of the possibilities. This independence may be demonstrated when a child knows that they don’t have to ask for permission to play with a specific toy during playtime or access a particular area of a playground.
Encouraging independent outdoor play may help a child learn to feel content when using toys or playground equipment by themselves. This type of play can also build a child’s confidence to endure challenges and complete tasks on their own, which can strengthen their cognitive skills. Providing open-ended materials to play with in a safe outdoor space might encourage a child’s ability to think for themselves and come up with their own solutions to problems.
It’s important to let children rely on their own imagination and resources to entertain them during playtime. This skill can be developed through group play and individual time, as children who begin to interact more with others their own age can also encourage independent thinking.
Elements of play that can boost a child’s independence may include:
- Giving them freedom during playtime
- Encouraging self-reliance
- Swinging or climbing on a playground by themselves
- Going through an obstacle course
- Allowing them to have more control over decisions during playtime
7. Boosts Creativity and Imagination
One of the most obvious benefits of play in developing cognitive abilities is that it can improve creativity and imagination. Providing a child with the means to think creatively and use their imagination may help them come to terms with the unknown. To play any game or participate in activities, children need to make connections and pathways that help them understand various concepts.
The same can be said for games that involve pretend play. Working with creativity and imagination is a great tool to foster a child’s ability to become flexible in their approach and try new things. It may also help them learn how to deal with mistakes and demonstrate unique skills and innovation.
Observing what types of creative games children come up with on their own can give insight into their interests or feelings, which can also assist them in learning how to express their emotions. Having a safe, accessible space in creativity to let their imagination unfold may show a child how to cope with their feelings.
Designing playground materials or equipment around a specific theme can make developing skills more exciting and engaging for children. Additional examples of play that can enhance creativity and imagination in children include:
- Artistic and musical games
- Practicing pretend play outdoors
- Encouraging excitement around creativity
- Creating art using outdoor objects
- Drawing and coloring
- Imaginative games that involve make-believe
8. Strengthens Problem Solving
Understanding logic, reason, hypothetical and imaginative ways of thinking can contribute to problem-solving. In an outdoor setting, children can practice their skills when they engage in activities that don’t have rules or restrictions. For instance, on a playground, children aren’t surrounded by information or answers that they may see in a classroom.
This freedom can be a good thing because it may promote their understanding that they can come up with their own ways of forming a solution to a problem. In noticing the changes or potential risks of their choices in their environment, they may begin to grasp connections between gathering information and putting it into action. Giving a child a safe, secure space to make mistakes will strengthen cognitive development.
Some ways that play can improve problem-solving in children might include:
- Having children work in small groups to create a project
- Implementing games that help identify a problem and a solution
- Providing spontaneous or unplanned activities
- Motivating them to try new ways of thinking and doing, even if they make a mistake
- Asking open-ended questions
- Encouraging children to create an outdoor game with their own rules
9. Introduces Sharing and Patience
Teaching children to share and cooperate with others is an essential aspect of learning they’ll carry with them to adulthood. In developing the importance of sharing, children will learn that other people’s feelings matter. Plus, kids will understand that sharing with them is a way for everyone to feel included and get an opportunity to play with a particular toy or object.
On an outdoor playground, children may be exposed to sharing even more when it comes to occupying certain areas. While playing, they’ll begin to see that not everyone can go on the swings or slide at the same time, so they must wait for their turns. Modeling sharing around young children may be one of the best ways for them to learn how to implement it.
Some play types that can enhance a child’s ability to share with others are:
- Group games that involve teams
- Giving each child their turn to tell a story
- Outdoor games like tag and hide and seek
- Passing a ball
- Playground activities that involve cooperation
10. Heightens Balance and Awareness
Further, playing outside may help increase a child’s balance and awareness of their surroundings. These are both essential skills, as they can help prevent injury and alert a child of an unsafe situation, such as determining whether they may fall. When children feel they’re self-directed during free play time, it may increase their ability to become more focused on the task in front of them, which can sharpen their attention span.
Proper balance is essential for physical and cognitive development. This skill can help them with other aspects of play, such as climbing, jumping, running, digging, and catching. Improving balance is also important to help children learn boundaries and limits. Additionally, participating in physical activity on a playground can be a way for children to establish a strong sensory system. This development will assist them in more complex cognitive learning in the future.
Elements of play that can help increase balance and awareness include:
- Assisting children to swing or hang on monkey bars
- Assisting children to cross a balance beam
- Obstacle courses
- Throwing and catching a ball
- Playing hopscotch
- Using stepping stones or stairs
- Playing freeze tag
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