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The Benefits of Play for Cognitive Development in Children

The Benefits of Play for Cognitive Development in Children

Cognitive skills allow us to read, remember, learn, reason, pay attention, and think. Therefore, proper cognitive development prepares children for their future while building life skills such as self-confidence, independence, and socialization. Regular playtime on a playground can promote cognitive development and skills in many ways.

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What Is Cognitive Development?

Cognitive development encapsulates a child’s ability to think and reason, varying across ages and stages, and highlighting the development of specific skills and intellectual aspects. Proper cognitive development in children is essential for information processing, self-recognition, reasoning, memory, problem-solving, and even language development. A child’s environment plays a pivotal role, influencing how children learn to focus on multiple aspects simultaneously and think in both concrete and hypothetical ways.

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 creates a foundation for future success.

why is cognitive development important

Why Is Cognitive Development Important?

The pace at which cognitive development occurs in a child’s early years is remarkable. Every second, their brains form over a million new neural connections, preparing them for a future where self-confidence, independence, and socialization become essential life skills. Children develop at different rates. Some children may have learning disabilities or challenges that make their cognitive abilities develop more slowly than their peers. In some cases, these difficulties may persist throughout childhood and adulthood. Despite varied developmental rates, encouraging cognitive growth is paramount for every child.

What to Expect From Cognitive Development Based on Age

Piaget’s stages of cognitive development provide a framework, yet each child progresses uniquely. From infancy’s sensorimotor stage to early adolescence’s concrete operational stage, children gradually understand the world, honing reasoning abilities, and developing unique personalities.


Infancy, from when a child is born to around 2 years old, is the sensorimotor stage in Piaget’s theory. In this stage, the focus is on learning about the world through sensory experiences and motor responses. A defining aspect is the development of object permanence, where babies learn that objects continue to exist, even when they cannot see them.

Additionally, in this stage, you’ll also see infants:

  • Express an interest in things
  • Recognize familiar people or objects
  • Demonstrate curiosity
  • Understand gestures or say certain words
  • Point to their body parts
  • Enjoy playing games like peekaboo

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early childhood

Early Childhood

According to Piaget’s classification, early childhood is the preoperational stage. Children in this stage range from 3 to 7 years old. Here, children begin to engage in pretend play as their language skills continue to expand and improve. Early childhood is also when children develop the ability to think symbolically and understand that words and pictures can represent real-world objects and concepts.

Other developing skills may include:

  • Following instructions
  • Building things and playing with more complex toys
  • Beginning to understand time
  • Naming colors and shapes
  • Reading and writing
  • Counting numbers effectively

Early Adolescence

In early adolescence, or the concrete operational stage, children ages 8 to 11 begin to understand others’ feelings and perspectives. In this stage, children’s reasoning abilities also continue evolving. The cognitive milestones in this part of a child’s life will start to appear more conventional, and children will further develop their unique personalities.

Some of these new cognitive skills 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



Around 12 years of age, children will enter what Piaget considers the formal operational stage. Once in this stage, children should begin to reason and think abstractly. Additionally, they can consider concepts from various perspectives and use deductive reasoning to apply general principles to specific situations.

what is cognitive play

What Is Cognitive Play?

Cognitive play refers to types of play that help build children’s problem-solving and other cognitive skills. Examples include puzzles, memory games, and building blocks. However, anything that involves a challenge for kids to overcome will provide benefits.

Conquering the monkey bars and creating new games to play with other children at a playground can all aid in a child’s cognitive development. No matter what type of play a child engages in, if they are focusing on the task at hand, they’ll be working on at least one developmental skill.

14 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:

enhances critical thinking skills

1. Enhances Critical Thinking Skills

Free play empowers children to make decisions independently, fostering 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 be independent, think for themselves, and face challenges is a great way to build confidence while sharpening 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. Additionally, introducing children to decision-making, critical thinking, and independence on the playground allows children to make mistakes and learn from poor choices in a safe and secure environment.

Some examples of open-ended play might include:

  • Unstructured play
  • Question-based games
  • Storytelling
  • Group activities
  • Roleplay or pretend play
  • Communicating ideas and words through pictures
  • Sorting games
  • Guessing games or riddles

magnifies the importance of the senses

2. Magnifies the Importance of the Senses

Sensory play, especially outdoors, refines cognitive thinking by engaging vision, taste, hearing, touch, and smell. It can be a vital aspect of the educational process. By using their senses during play, children can better understand the world around them and 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  sandbox play 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
  • Gardening
  • Playing with food
  • Sorting and classifying different objects
  • Sandbox play
  • Water play

3. Reinforces Memory and Attention

Outdoor play and physical exercise positively impact the hippocampus, improving memory, attention span, and working memory capabilities. Additionally, improving motor skills through play can help with working memory capabilities that play a role in cognitive development. Focusing on cognitive development activities that boost memory and attention, such as a game of Simon says, can help set children 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

improves communication and language skills

4. Improves Communication and Language Skills

Learning how to communicate and use language is crucial for every child. Play is an ideal way for children to practice talking to others. As they interact with other children, they may begin to pay attention to other children’s word choices, which can improve their vocabulary and sentence structure.

Pretend play often involves verbal communication, whether it’s creating dialogue for characters or explaining the imaginary world they’ve created. This helps enhance language skills, including vocabulary, syntax, and narrative abilities.

Enhancing communication skills is also beneficial in helping children interact with others socially. An outdoor space that encourages children to work together can motivate them to communicate in a fun way without any pressure. Using their language capabilities allows them to come up with ideas with other children or devise a plan for what games to play outside while considering others’ opinions.

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

As children are naturally curious, play is an excellent way to encourage them to lean into their curiosity and explore new things. Supporting children can inspire them to learn 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.

Playgrounds are ideal places for children to pursue their curiosities in a relatively controlled and safe environment. Interactive structures like playgrounds give 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  — ideally encouraging children to continue seeking new learning opportunities.

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 through Pretend Play

Engaging in pretend play allows children to use their imagination to create and explore new worlds, characters, and situations. This fosters creativity, helping them develop the ability to think outside the box and come up with innovative ideas. Pretend play frequently involves interaction with others, requiring children to negotiate roles, share responsibilities, and cooperate. These social interactions contribute to the development of interpersonal skills, empathy, and an understanding of social norms.

Pretend play often involves the ability to switch between different roles, perspectives, and scenarios. This promotes cognitive flexibility—the ability to adapt to changing situations and think about things from multiple points of view.

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. Pretend play allows children to explore and express a wide range of emotions within the safety of the imaginary world. This can contribute to the development of emotional regulation skills as children learn to manage and understand 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
  • Dress-up
  • 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. Pretend play often involves creating scenarios and situations, requiring children to think critically and solve problems within the context of their imaginary world. This helps develop their problem-solving skills, fostering creativity and flexibility in thinking.

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

Children sharing playground equipment

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

Playground activities that heighten balance and awareness

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:

provide sensory and motor activities

11. Provide Sensory and Motor Activities

Especially for younger children, sensory experiences and motor activities are primary ways of learning about the world. Each time a toddler touches a new texture or moves their body in a new way, they figure out a little bit more about themselves and their environment. Playgrounds provide a wealth of opportunities for these sensory and motor experiences. By design, some play equipment engages the senses in exciting ways.

promote social skills

12. Promote Social Skills

Playgrounds offer a safe and inviting community for children to interact with one another. Especially for children without siblings, social interaction with other kids is crucial. Through playground play, kids will learn social skills like sharing, patience, communication, empathy, and rule-following.

Children are naturally self-centered. Fortunately, they can outgrow this mindset and become more compassionate and giving. Playgrounds teach children to move past their wants and needs in several ways. From asking a friend if they’re OK after they take a tumble to altering a game to accommodate a friend with special needs, they’re identifying with someone else’s experience, and that’s a win.

13. Lead to Improved Concentration

The lessons and skills children learn on the playground will follow them into other areas of their lives, such as their education. For instance, when children free play on the playground, they learn how to entertain themselves and widen their attention spans for sustained focus. This improved attention span can then lead to more classroom engagement and focus.

While free play may not seem like it requires concentration, a 20-minute attempt at getting across the monkey bars or a 30-minute game of pretend requires kids to devote their attention to one task, just like they would have to in math class or during a music lesson.

Overall, when children have a chance to enjoy recess, they return to class better prepared to stay on task. A wealth of research supports that outdoor play boosts productivity and academic achievement among children.

14. Make Learning Fun

Playgrounds allow children to learn in more engaging and exciting ways. For example, instead of passively listening to a presentation on the importance of sharing, kids get a firsthand chance to build empathy and learn how sharing helps everyone have a fun time on the playground.

This lesson isn’t only more interesting — it’s likely to be more effective. When lessons or activities naturally appeal to children, they’re more open to actively participating in learning opportunities. Showing children learning can be enjoyable can set a solid foundation for them to continue enjoying and seeking out education.

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Help the children in your life develop their cognitive abilities by visiting your local playground. Watch as children collectively face their fears, learn more about themselves and their surroundings, and become more independent.

If your community needs a playground specifically to aid in cognitive development, contact us and learn more about our quality playground equipment. We design all our products with input from childhood development experts so we can be sure children benefit in various ways, including cognitively, from playing on Little Tikes Commercial equipment. Browse our products or request a quote to start safely empowering kids to learn and grow today.

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