Evaluating Evidence for the Role of Play in Supporting Children’s Cognitive Development

Play is a basic need such as the need to eat and sleep for human being’s development (Schaefer and Drewes, 2008). Additionally, play has advantages in helping children’s social, emotional and cognitive development because a child’s brain is not completed when he/she is born (Halfon et al., 2001; Ginsburg, 2007). The individual’s brain is developing gradually from the birth to the adulthood (Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, 2007). Evidently, The Association for Childhood Education International (ACEI) stated that during the childhood, children are under the influence of different kinds of play at all stages but the age of rapid growth is from birth to five years (Stone, 1995). Alternatively, play helps children to acquire new skills such as practicing and exploring the world, problem solving, creative thought, innovation, adaptation (Ginsburg, 2007; Stagnitti, 2004). So, as Froeber said, “A man’s later life has its root in the play of childhood” (Huang and Plass, 2009).
Many researchers found that play has a significant impact on cognitive development of children (Pearson, 2008). To illustrate, Singer and Singer (1990) stated that play enables children to a) expand vocabulary and link objects with actions, b) develop object constancy, c) form event schemas and scripts, d) learn strategies for problem solving, e) develop divergent thinking ability, f) develop a flexibility in shifting between different types of thoughts (Russ, 2004). Similarly, Erikson emphasized play’s role as a vehicle of diagnosis. Moreover he proposed two significant role of play; creative expression and problem-solving (Russ, 2004). In his opinion (1963), play has an important role on ego by being dominant over the self (Pearson, 2008). Finally, Wasserman observed some benefits of play such as using the mind actively by creating new things, not being scared of making mistakes, taking risks and feeling free (Stone, 1995). In addition, children’s cognitive development encompasses knowledge and learning, scientific and mathematical thinking, ability of insight, social connection, reasoning, language acquisition and object constancy (Pearson, 2008; Work, 2005; Russ, 2004).
In order to understand the importance between play and cognitive development, current research will discover theories of play which are related to children’s cognitive development. Theories which are related with play can be defined into two different categories which are classical and modern. Both modern and classical theories claimed that play can have an important role on children’s emotional, social and cognitive development (Harris, et al., 2003). First, Classical Theories are fundamental for play’s emergence and function in the nineteenth century. However, Classical Theories are highlighted to expend surplus energy from the body and to feel more relaxed when doing physical activity in play (Harris, et al., 2003). Second, Modern Theories undertook the clarification task of the role of play for children after the 1920s (Mellou, 1994 taken from Stagnitti, 2003). As an illustration of this, Anna – Sigmund Freud and Erikson considered the role of play by expressing it as a catharsis which gets rid of negative feelings and emotions whereas, Piaget changed the direction from this aspect to cognitive development of children (Harris, et al., 2003).
Modern theories such as Cognitive Developmental Theories assume play as a cognitive process which has an effect on cognitive development. Piaget (1962) and Vygotsky’s theories (1966, 1997) are categorized supporting with Cognitive Developmental Theories of Play (Stagnitti, 2003).



Constructivism and Cognitive Developmental Stage
Piaget claimed that an individual’s knowledge is shaped by new experiences and information that they have already known (Cook and Cook, 2005). For this reason, the more stimuli the children are exposed to in the environment, the more their cognitive skills are developed (Cook and Cook, 2005). In his opinion, a human’s development of knowledge is a natural process which is established by operational structures so he focused on the operation that is essential knowledge (Gauvain and Cole, 1997). Piaget defined two essential development time course; assimilation and accommodation. He identified assimilation as an ascendant for play because children make a connection with their knowledge by proceeding the game (Harris, et al, 2003). Moreover, Piaget defined “egocentric child” in order to explain their cognitive ability which relates to looking at world in somebody else’s eyes (Mehran, 1981). According to Piaget, operational structures might be in developmental stages which are sensory-motor, pre-operational, concrete operational, formal operational thought (Gauvain and Cole, 1997).

Beginning with sensory-motor stage for birth-two years old, infants all knowledge is dependent on sensory input and motor actions such as sucking and grasping (Cook and Cook, 2005). Piaget defined sensory-motor play as infants playing with their feet, hands in for using object or exploring the world with their mouth (McMahon, 2009). Their cognitive skills are not fully developed to form symbols and related with this they do not have the
ability of object permanence which means objects still come into being whether they are available to be seen or not. Hence they are capable of understanding now and here in the play context (Cook and Cook, 2005).
The stage which starts symbolic function, representation (thought) and language using is pre-operational thought (two to seven years). In this phase they are using some symbols such as language, art and play. Symbolic Play is a significant in this period because they are learning to use language and pretend play at the same time (McMahon, 2009). For example, when the child is 18 months, he is playing with a banana “as if” it were a telephone. In accordance with Golomb and Cornelius (1977), conservational attainment is gained when children are exposed a training program for symbolic play at 49 and 56 months (Mehran, 1981). Another important play type of pre-operational child is fantasy play which displays something that is far away being something that is not them, such as hero and lion kings. The third play type make-believe characterizes toys to employ for their play. For instance, children can use medical supplies to be a doctor in their play. According to Piaget, all types of play are signal of children’s mental representation and help them to develop their cognitive skills (Cook and Cook, 2009).
The third stage is concrete operational thought (seven to eleven) which stresses reversible mental actions, thinking multiple dimensions and decentered thought (many aspects of problem).

The last one formal- operational thought (twelve and above) describes flourishing logical thinking from concrete to abstract, acquiring the use of deductive reasoning (reasoning from general to specific facts) (Cook and Cook, 2009).
 In addition to Cognitive Developmental Theory, Smilansky’s (1968) adapted of Piaget’s (1962) cognitive play categories;

  • Functional Play: This type of play involves children’s movement such as runs, jumps.
  • Constructive Play: Children’s are creating new things with taking advantage of paper, sand, playdough, paint or other materials. This play obtains a child to divergent thinking.
  • Dramatic Play: Dramatic Play refers pre-operational thought which role play and make believe transformation happens. By the time the children start to play together, dramatic play converts socio-dramatic play. Furthermore, dramatic play is advance level of symbolic play. In this direction, advance symbolic play helps children’s language development and representational thought.
  • Games with rules: Rules are used by children to format the games could be simple or complicated like card or board games, hide and seek (Stone, 1995).

According to Vygotsky (Robert, 2005), play is essential for children’s minds to be structured and to be advanced in mental function. In this instance, he defined three fundamental characteristics of play; children invent an imaginary scenario, assume a role and play out the scenario, adhere to the regulations. Play is a prototype of children’s real life so play comes from part of life although, Koffka claimed that play is not real; it is different world (Vygotsky, 1978). Internal and external actions are two different kinds of imaginary circumstance which are maintained with role playing. Internal actions are significant for land mark to pass one developmental stage to the next one and internal actions are associated with external actions. In this aspect, play has different roles with respect to age. As an example of this when a child is under three, the game is more serious than other ages because they are incapable of differentiation between the imaginary and the real. When children are at school age, play turns into rules of activities and more limited but they can establish new relations with real circumstance and circumstance which is considered (Vygotsky, 1978). Moreover, he proposed that make-believe play enables children to employ self-regulation (relevance between children’s goals and their next application) with roles and rules (Robert, 2005). Furthermore, Vygotsky indicated that play fulfills children’s some needs which can not be rejected (Vygotsky, 1978). In his opinion play has many advantages;


  • obtains a transitional stage,
  • is a novel sort of desire,
  • helps to learn describing the things with their name and to learn using words,
  • provides children to express internally for what they perceive from their vision freely,
  • allows using their imagination, although there are rules in the game because play carries out with rules,
  • Enables consideration of rules even in real life,
  • teaches children to behave in cognitive aspects instead of externally,
  • assists children to accomplish unpleasant actions,
  • generates zone of proximal development which assures an increase of children’s actions beyond their actual age (Vygotsky, 1978; Harris, et al, 2003). He described zone of proximal development as finding an equilibrium between children’s actual age and potential levels of development (Harris, et al., 2003).
  • aims to both giving satisfaction and feeling anxious about winning the game,
  • gives opportunity to express themselves and behaviors freely,
  • means creation of circumstance that is able to develop abstract thought.

Clearly it could be seen that both theories have lack of the information. Evidently, social and cognitive aspects of play experiences should have an impact on cognitive development itself. To demonstrate, in Johnson’s (1978) idea of children’s play development is a significant combination between social categories and cognitive categories which was done by Rubin in 1970s (in Harris et al, 2003). Rubin created balanced model that is known two-way matrix, took into account both cognitive axis such as functional, constructive, dramatic, games with rules and social axis such as solitary, parallel and group categories (Harris, et al, 2003).
According to Smith (2002), play behavior can define in terms of children’s ages. He determined 7 different kinds of play:

  • Early Exploratory/ Practice Play: This type of play is very useful to enhance cognitive development because practicing with mirrors or manipulative play, infants are learning about specialties of objects, themselves and the world. When they are exploring the world with objects, they also understand their senses and influence of movement.
  • Construction Play: Construction Play which is called representational play involves applying blocks or building materials to symbolize a real-world in children of 19 months. Using these materials becomes complex when children reach is 6. One kind of construction play is Blocks which gives edge for learning, developing and having skills of children.
  • Pretend/ Role Play: Pretend play is significant for improving memory and making a symbolic relation between tool and real life characters or objects. In this category of play, there can be dolls& stuffed toys, small vehicle toys, play scenes& puppets, dress-up materials and tools& props.

According to Mehran (1981), Doris (2002), Gmitrova and Gmitrov (2003),  experiences and trainings are important factors in these kinds of play to acquire cognitive competence. For example, Smilansky (1968) observed free play behavior of two different kinds of groups; disadvantaged children whose environmental and economical conditions are limited such as playing with low quality toys and advantaged children whose are brought up in well-developed environment and better economical conditions. She revealed that the disadvantaged children in her research displayed low quality role-play behavior and socio-dramatic play. The results are related to inadequate bringing up as verbally, cognitively and socially. Evidently, Rosen found a similar result as Smilansky (1974). She focused on American nursery school children in disadvantaged and advantaged groups. The advantaged group showed more role-playing and socio-dramatic play compared with an advantaged group. In addition to their findings, Saltz, Dixon and Johns (1977) examined preschool children by teaching to play tale like The Three Billy Gruff or Little Red Riding Hood to see the difference whether training makes any changes for developmental cognitive skills. They result indicated that teaching children how to act developed cognitive performance (Mehran, 1981).

  • Game Activity Play: When children are around the age of two, their play style is being more logical and symbolic. Game activities which are based on rules and depend on education or traditional knowledge. An example of game activity play is puzzles which are only available after 12 months of age. Puzzles have three important abilities to gain; fine motor skills, visual discrimination and cognitive skills. In this respect, puzzles help children to make a play of available places pieces to put, to organize and to solve the problem.

Computer video games provide a highly involved game play activity. In Verenika, Harris and Lysaght’s observation (2003), they examined computer games and their impact on children’s development. The result showed that children engaged easily with computer games, exploring and enjoying the programs. For this reason, in order to have cognitive benefits from software programs, designers should prepare age-appropriate programs by testing them on children.

  • Sports & Recreational Play: Many sports play requires physical and cognitive ability for games because of physical danger or inability to act due to rules. For instance, game with sport equipments has rules which are only available to understand after the age of six.

Giving an importance to physical play, Smith and Pellegrini (1998) complained about lack of interests of the effects of physical play on cognitive development. They gave an example of why physical play is needed. When children are working on cognitive tasks, they need to have a break because their nervous system is not fully developed (cited in Bjorklund and Brown, 1998).

  • Media Play: Media Play encompasses art & crafts, audiovisual equipment and musical instruments which prove highly successful in the development in many areas. Musical instruments and audiovisual equipment are suitable to be used by all age groups of children. They have a positive effect both physically and psychologically. Moreover, when children are interested in and playing musical instruments, they are developing their creativity and learning about cause and effect relations. However, arts & crafts only suit children older than 12 months. Play with art and crafts encourage children’s self- expression and increase problem-solving abilities.

The study about music training on children’s cognitive and brain development showed that there are some small but important changes before music training and after music training on children’s brain development (Schlaug, et al, 2005).

  • Educational Academic Play: In this last category children are forced to play with learning toys or smart toys in order to develop their cognitive skills. Smart toys & educational software and learning toys require some cognitive ability to understand the function of toys. Smart toys have many different functions such as giving response to children’s behavior with sound or movement. On the other hand, books are available in all ages of children in some aspects. Reading books increase children’s perceptional skills, understanding of language and developing cognitively. Nevertheless they need help to understand or use it until 19 months.

Play also helps children with autism who have problems finding names for objects or have problems with language acquisition. For example, MacAlpine (1998) found that a microdevelopment method which means a slow ongoing process of development helped children who had autistic symptoms. MacAlpine studied eight developmental stages of play which referred to different kinds of play at each stage. He concluded that children’s autistic symptoms disappeared. In addition, through playing, they gained opinions about objects, transformation, movement and spatial relationship.
In conclusion, when children are playing, it can be seen simply as a game but it has a crucial effect for children’s cognitive, social and emotional development (Harris, et al, 2003). Although many theories focus on the effect of play on cognitive competence without considering social and emotional improvement, play is also essential for children’s social and emotional development. Play helps to make children ready for actual life and they are practicing through play (Harris, et al, 2003). Many different play types are contributing to children’s cognitive ability in terms of their age. Furthermore schools support many academic play types to improve children’s development (Ginsburg, 2006). Providing better emotional support to children, like motivating children to play with puzzles or reading activities, can improve their cognitive skills.


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