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40 Reasons Why Play is Crucial for Brain Development

Why is play important for children? Article 31 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states, “Parties recognize the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child, and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts,” and “parties shall respect and promote the right of the child to participate fully in cultural and artistic life and shall encourage the provision of appropriate and equal opportunities for cultural, artistic, recreational, and leisure activity.” If the United Nations has declared that play is a fundamental right for children, it must be for good reason! The benefits of play are vast and dynamic. Play is crucial for every aspect of child development — cognitive, mental, emotional, physical, and social growth and well-being are all profoundly enriched by play. The science supporting play and child development is plentiful, as you will soon discover! The team at Playground Equipment are passionate advocates for the importance of play, so we have created this guide on the benefits of play for brain development to help enlighten and inspire parents, caregivers, and educators: 


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How Does Play Benefit Brain Development for Babies?

The benefits of play are vast, but it is especially crucial for healthy brain development in children starting from birth. Why is play important for babies? This quote from the University of Georgia’s Building Baby’s Brain series conveys it exceptionally: “Play is one of the most essential activities babies do. Through play, babies explore their environment and make sense of new and different information. Experiences babies have during play help strengthen and expand networks of connections in their developing brains.” 

Baby brain development is truly remarkable. At birth, the average newborn’s brain is about a quarter of the size of what it will become as an adult. Within the first year of life, it doubles in size! This is why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state that the “early years of a child’s life are very important for later health and development.” Positive experiences, healthy interaction, and exploration of the world around them can all have lifelong effects. Play naturally unites all of these factors. Play is how babies learn cause and effect, develop their senses, test their limits, bond with others, build confidence, and discover what gives them joy. Here are some articles exploring the benefits of play for babies, particularly for baby brain development, and resources caregivers and teachers can use to incorporate healthy brain-building play for newborns and infants:

How Does Play Help With Brain Development for Children?

Play and cognitive development go hand in hand — when a child is playing, they are learning and their brain is growing! Healthy brain development involves factors such as experimentation with cause and effect, physical activity, interactions with others, taking risks, self-expression, discovering language, experiencing new sensations, and exploring the five senses. Fortunately, play unites all of these brain-building activities! For kids, play comes naturally as a means to absorb, interpret, and appreciate the world around them and their place in it. Here are resources that support the importance of play for brain health:

  • The Power of Play: A Pediatric Role in Enhancing Development in Young Children from the American Academy of Pediatrics — This is one of the most comprehensive articles on the role of play in brain development as well as the benefits of play for child development overall. 

  • The Neuroscience of Learning Through Play from the LEGO Foundation — This article explores the science of brain development in children and (play-based learning). 

  • This article from the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Education, Social Work, and Psychological Sciences explores the abundant benefits of outdoor play and brain development.

  • Why is play important in mathematics? As we explored in the infographic, play contributes to all areas of STEM! This article from the North American Association for Environmental Education addresses how outdoor play prepares children to excel in STEM. 

  • Exercise for brain health applies to people of all ages, but it is especially important for growing brains! Penn State examines how movement helps with healthy brain development in kids. 

  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are steadfast advocates for the importance of recess. This article provides statistics on the cognitive benefits of play as well as the academic benefits of recess. 

  • This article from the Center for Inclusive Childcare addresses the benefits of play for cognitive development and how various types of play provide unique fuel for learning and brain growth. 

  • Physical Activity, Fitness, and Physical Education: Effects on Academic Performance — From the National Library of Medicine comes more scientific evidence on the benefits of exercise for brain health!

  • Summertime, Playtime from the Harvard Graduate School of Education — Even Harvard is advocating for more play and less scheduling during the summer! In this excellent article, you will learn more about how play builds executive function skills, the benefits of play for intellectual development, and the importance of risky play. 

  • Free Play Helps Stimulate Creativity, Builds Children’s Brains from the University of Mississippi Medical Center — The benefits of free play are plentiful, and cognitive growth in children is a big one. 

How do you stimulate a child’s brain development? While there is no definitive course on how to raise a smart baby, plenty of play experiences are a surefire way to help your children be happy and healthy in every way! 

We have included a transcription of this infographic here to make it more accessible and make it easier to copy and paste the fantastic quotes that celebrate the power of play for happy, healthy, flexible brains: 


40 Reasons Why Play Is Crucial for Brain Development 


“Play is our brain’s favorite way of learning.” — Diane Ackerman

“For very young children, all important learning takes place within the context of play. Play is exploration. Play is trying things. Play is trying to kind of figure out when you do one thing, something else happens.” — Dr. Jack Shonkoff, Harvard University

“The experience of play changes the connections of neurons at the front of your brain. Without play experiences, those neurons aren’t changed.” — Dr. Sergio Pellis, professor of neuroscience

“The experiences babies have during play help strengthen and expand networks of connections in their developing brains.” — Diane W. Bales, University of Georgia professor 

A 2014 study found that 6-year-old children who engaged in free play developed stronger executive functioning abilities, providing them the self-control to plan and achieve goals.

“Children need play. They NEED play to develop well. It’s not a luxury, it’s not something that we should regard as recess or a break from learning. It IS learning.” — Dr. Peter Gray

In 2018, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a clinical report that advised doctors to write prescriptions for play to reduce stress, promote social skills, and fuel cognitive growth.

“Play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength. Play is important to healthy brain development.” — American Academy of Pediatrics

Play is deemed so essential for healthy child development that it is considered a human right for every child by the United Nations.

“As we await new discoveries from brain science, one finding is already clear: Play is a wonderful metaphor for active, engaged, meaningful, and socially interactive learning.” — National Association for the Education of Young Children

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention supports that active students are better learners and recess increases physical activity and improves educational outcomes.

A recent study by the University of Cambridge analyzed decades of research on play-based learning and concluded that it can have a “greater positive effect” on math and spatial skills than more traditional approaches.

“Play naturally cultivates their enjoyment, motivation, and agency; while the inclusion of guidance by a supportive adult extends the scope for learning beyond what the child might achieve on their own.” — Society for Research on Child Development

“Play stimulates the parts of the brain involved in both careful, logical reasoning and carefree, unbound exploration.” — Greg McKeow

“Children are natural scientists — they come into the world ready to experiment and learn through play. And they use what they discover to not only adapt the structure of their brains but also strengthen the skills they need to continue being engaged, flexible learners for their whole lives.” — The LEGO Foundation

The American Academy of Pediatrics described recess as a “necessary break in the day for optimizing a child’s social, emotional, physical, and cognitive development.”

A study of young rats discovered that play activated the entire neocortex, and of the 1,200 genes measured, about one third of them were significantly changed with only a half-hour of play. Rats in enriched environments had thicker cerebral cortices. Play and exploration also triggered the secretion of BDNF, a substance essential for the growth of brain cells.

Exercise and movement are powerful brain foods. Blood vessels expand during physical activity, speeding up the delivery of oxygen, water, and glucose, which boosts brain power and learning retention.

A 2016 study found that regular short, unstructured play breaks helped children focus and be more productive and less stressed in school.

“Play helps children navigate complex social situations now and into adulthood. The new circuits the brain builds from play help create social agility.” — Cecilia Clark, Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose

Chronic stress has been found to be toxic and detrimental for growing brains — play, especially outdoor play, is backed by science as a stress reliever and a healthy way to work through troubling emotions.

“At real play, children are in charge, instinctively making hundreds of decisions as they assess and determine the levels of risk they want to take, physically, emotionally and socially: mastering, day by day, an increasing repertoire of skills, adding to their bank of experience.” — Adrian Voce

A study discovered that play can stimulate the fight-or-flight response in a safe and healthy way (without triggering cortisol), allowing children to practice handling danger and stress.

In 2013, the National Academy of Medicine published a major report supporting the benefits of physical activity to children’s cognitive development and academic success.

“Play is not frivolous; it is brain building. Play has been shown to have both direct and indirect effects on brain structure and functioning.” — American Academy of Pediatrics

“Executive function and brain health underlie academic performance. Basic cognitive functions related to attention and memory facilitate learning, and these functions are enhanced by physical activity and higher aerobic fitness.” — National Library of Medicine

Play is key for helping both people and animals become more adept socially. One study found that the best predictor for academic performance in eighth grade was a child’s social skills in third grade.

“The highest form of research is essentially play.” — N.V. Scarfe, education researcher

Research by doctors at Yale University found that make-believe games are the “forerunners of the important capacity for forms of self-regulation including reduced aggression, delay of gratification, civility, and empathy.”

Finland is esteemed for the academic success of its students. Children enjoy around an hour of daily recess, as well as unstructured play breaks between each class.

A 2016 study found that young boys who spent more time sitting and less time playing did not progress as quickly in math and reading.

Studies have found that playing with blocks may enhance cognitive flexibility, or the ability to quickly shift focus from one relevant stimulus to another.

Research by the Seattle Children’s Research Institute found that children who played with blocks showed greater brain engagement than when watching educational DVDs.

Further evidence found that very young children who engaged in regular block play developed stronger language skills. The study lasted for six months.

“Children learn through doing — play is how they explore the world, learn to assess risk, try things out, and get to know themselves.” — Bethe Almeras

Psychologist Edward Fisher analyzed 46 studies on the cognitive benefits of play and concluded that sociodramatic play (when kids pretend together) “results in improved performances in both cognitive-linguistic and social affective domains.”

"Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” — Fred Rogers

A long-term study found that more complex play with LEGOs in preschool children correlated with higher mathematics achievement in high school, even after controlling for a child’s IQ.

The Oxford Handbook of the Development of Imagination states that pretend play boosts executive functioning skills. By exercising their imagination, kids learn to plan ahead, control their emotions, and expand their memory.

Brain scans found that playing with dolls activated the prefrontal brain regions of children, while solo tablet play did not. This suggests that doll play provides opportunities for the development of social-emotional skills, such as empathy.



National Association for the Education of Young Children (

University of Georgia (

College of Veterinary Medicine at Washington State University (

Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose (

Prosocial foundations of children's academic achievement — National Library of Medicine (

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (

National Library of Medicine (

Society of Research in Child Development (

The Power of Play: A Pediatric Role in Enhancing Development in Young Children — American Academy of Pediatrics

The neuroscience of learning through play — the LEGO Foundation (

This is brought to you by Playground Equipment commercial playgroundsswing setsplayground surfaces, and playground shade structures.

Edited by: Ben Thompson