The Neuroscience of Play & Why Kids Need It

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Wellness Mama » Blog » Motherhood » The Neuroscience of Play & Why Kids Need It

I’ve always been a huge advocate of getting my kids to play, especially outside during the summer. I feel like they are more well behaved, more tired at the end of the day, and overall happier when they get in lots of playing. But playtime has many other benefits too, and they’re backed by science!

What Is Free Play?

It’s important to define what we mean when we talk about play. Those who study the Montessori Method of education call it meaningful play. Free play or meaningful play should be:

  • Spontaneous – Play evolves naturally and is not driven by adult-imposed “rules”.
  • Child-led – The child can decide what they want to do and how.
  • Fun – Play is enjoyable (of course!).
  • Safe – Children are in a safe environment that they can be free to explore and experiment in (this environment will differ by age).

While activities that are chosen and run by adults (an art project, for example) can be fun and beneficial to children, the best kind of play is free play.

That’s not just my opinion…

The Neuroscience of Play

Free play is not just fun, but incredibly important for children’s development. And research confirms it.

A Lego Foundation review from 2017 took a look at the literature to see how play affects cognitive function. They found that when children actively engage in joyful and meaningful play, they are utilizing iterative thinking (repeating a set of operations that brings them closer to the end goal). This is the ability to reason, problem solve, remember, and focus.

If you’ve ever had a pet kitten or puppy (and even older animals as well) you likely know that humans are not the only species that engage in play. While play is fun and can help children (and other species’ young) socialize, it’s also an adaptation with a biological role.

Species who engage in juvenile play use play as a developmental tool. Play promotes healthy executive function. Although it may not look like it, free play and unstructured free time can teach kids to develop acceptable behavior that can help further goals like:

  • organization and planning
  • self-control and regulation
  • understanding different points of view
  • ability to adapt to unexpected situations and circumstances

Pretty impressive!

On the flip side, lack of play in a child’s life is likely to have a negative effect on these skills. One review found that rats deprived of juvenile play had impaired executive function. They also had the following experiences:

  • excessive anxiety in stressful situations
  • over-reaction to innocent social interactions
  • less able to coordinate movements with peers
  • less able to solve mental tasks

There are obvious ethical issues with trying to replicate this kind of study in humans, but researchers believe the same would be true in human children (and I would guess adults too!).

One explanation for how play helps build cognitive function is that it activates brain cell growth. One study found that rats who engaged in rough play had increased levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF is important for brain cell growth and development.

What Happened to Play Time?

Kindergarten in the U.S. began as a chance for children to learn and grow through play through spontaneous play. But these days, kindergarten looks a lot more like first grade used to. And that’s not just my opinion. A 2014 study (along with other research) has discovered that kindergarten may have inappropriate expectations for five to six-year-olds. They also found children in public school (and possibly other school settings) are spending more time with curriculum and less time playing.

In addition, it’s no secret that parents increasingly feel like they can’t let their children out of their sight. Fears of child abduction, trafficking, or even just a neighbor finding you negligent can make us restrict kids to the front or back yard. It’s a tough thing to weigh, but we may actually be overprotecting kids.

Another trend affecting free play is an increase in organized activities like sports and other commitments. While there can be great value in these things, too many may be just as bad (or worse) if it limits the ability for unstructured play.

Add screen time into the picture, and you have quite a recipe for a big change in childhood vs. just a generation or two ago.

The Many Benefits of Play

We’ve discussed how play affects cognitive function and learning but the benefits don’t stop there. Interestingly, in play, cognitive function develops through social and emotional development, not separate from it. This means play is not just about better learning but is a holistic way that kids naturally develop into functioning adults.

Here are some of the other benefits of play:

Emotional Intelligence

As mentioned, researchers explain in the Lego review that emotional and cognitive function are not separate and actually develop together. Joy, for example, is associated with higher network brain changes and is directly related to learning. In play, kids get a chance to explore their emotions in a safe setting. They can also develop empathy, compassion, and understanding toward others.

Social and Communication Skills

When kids play together they get the opportunity to develop social skills like dealing with others desires, emotions, and action. They also learn how to work together, collaborate, compromise, and share. Kids learn how to communicate verbally, in writing, and interpersonally. In fact, the Lego review discusses how social interactions are integral to healthy brain development, so socialization and learning are clearly interwoven.

Boosts Creativity

Another benefit of playtime is that kids get an opportunity to be creative. They can create new worlds (with new rules!), build space ships, become an Olympian… wherever their imagination takes them! Developing creativity also helps with problem-solving. The Lego review discovered that iterative play helps build the pathways that support alternative perspectives, flexible thinking, and creativity.

Physical Activity

Spontaneous play almost always includes an aspect of physical activity, whether it’s a game of tag or simply moving around the living room pretending it’s a grocery store. It’s no secret that juvenile obesity is a growing problem and that lack of physical activity probably contributes to it. Kids like to exercise, they just do it through play!

Active play also helps kids build gross motor skills, coordination, and balance. Physical activity also helps kids sleep better and learn more easily. This Washington Post article makes the case that kids who are more physically active are better able to focus and have faster cognitive function than those who aren’t as active.

How to Increase Playtime

Even without looking at the data, we intuitively know that playtime is important for our kids. But modern life can easily get in the way. Here are some ways to make room in your lives and schedules for more play time:

Prioritize Playtime

Many parents feel guilty for expecting their kids to entertain themselves. Feel guilty no more! Playtime is so important it should make the priorities list every day as it is one of the best thing kids can do for their development. Consider scheduling play time so that it makes it into every day. One hour or more of free play each day is a good goal.

Choose Schools Wisely

If you have a choice, consider sending your children to a school that offers more recess time, or in the case of preschool, is play-based. Some schools are recognizing the benefit of recess time and are making room for more free play in the schedule. Homeschooling is another option for some that offers incredible flexibility.

Cut Back on Activities

If the lack of free play time is because your child has too many activities scheduled, it might be time to rethink those commitments. Organized activities are great but should not replace free play time. Of course there’s no one-size-fits-all formula for this. Take stock of the hours you spend in activities during the week and compare them to unscheduled play time. Is the balance working for you?

Set a Limit for Screen Time

In our family, we take regular digital days off. I find that it has many physical and emotional benefits for the whole family. One additional thing that it does is forces the kids to find things to do but are not screen related. Usually what they come up with is really interesting and fun.

Some families choose specific hours that screens can be used while others choose an amount of time (like one or two hours) and let children decide when they use that time. Another possibility is to take an entire day once a week off from screens. Taking this break from screens gives kids a chance to have more free play time to experience some of the benefits talked about earlier.

Let Go a Little

If we need to go outside with our children every time they want to go, they probably won’t go outside very often. Let’s be honest, there are a lot of things that need to be done inside the house.

But if we can feel more comfortable letting our children go outside on their own, they get more free play time and we can still get many things done inside. (Obviously, you wouldn’t let your toddler go wander the neighborhood alone!). Every family and every child is different so the age and the distances you feel comfortable with them going are going to be different in every situation. It’s important to remind ourselves that it’s ok to listen to our instincts even if others disagree with us. We are the parents after all!

The bonus: Kids gain self-confidence and self-reliance skills!

Is Playtime Dead?

No way! Modern life makes it more of a challenge to get kids enough free play, but it can be done. Just a few tweaks to the schedule can be enough to give children the free play time they need for healthy development. Who knows, the whole family may join in!

This article was medically reviewed by Madiha Saeed, MD, a board certified family physician. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.

What does play look like in your house? Do you notice a difference in your kids when they get more vs. less free play?

Katie Wells Avatar

About Katie Wells

Katie Wells, CTNC, MCHC, Founder of Wellness Mama and Co-founder of Wellnesse, has a background in research, journalism, and nutrition. As a mom of six, she turned to research and took health into her own hands to find answers to her health problems. is the culmination of her thousands of hours of research and all posts are medically reviewed and verified by the Wellness Mama research team. Katie is also the author of the bestselling books The Wellness Mama Cookbook and The Wellness Mama 5-Step Lifestyle Detox.


One response to “The Neuroscience of Play & Why Kids Need It”

  1. Chantal Avatar

    I agree wholeheartedly with this post! Good old sunshine, fresh air and dirt. We have lots of space outside and encourage the kids (ages 10, 7 and 3) to be out there as much as possible. I loved your post on ideas to keep kids outside in the summer, and we bought the Zipline you recommended. It’s been the best gift for the kids. When they’re not on that, they ride their bikes in the grass, play ball, swing, make up games, create their own toys and and jump in the blow-up pool to cool off, lol. We have no TV, and the kids don’t use screens. We read and listen to audio books together, and they draw and create things for entertainment. They’re only little once, and the value of playing is priceless. Thank you, Katie, for all these wonderful, valuable posts. I found you 5 years ago when I googled “healing a cavity” for my daughter (I followed your advice and it worked!), and you’ve changed my life for the better!

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