Play and Learning

Winter means many things to many people. To children, it often means winter break, presents, and a chance to have lots of time to play. And this is good news for learning!

Play and the brain

In 1945, a psychologist named Donald Hebb, who was doing research on learning by working with rats, brought some of those rats home in the evening, for his children to play with. As strange as that may sound today, it led to an important discovery: the rats that spent evenings playing with the children excelled in learning tests, as compared with the rats who stayed in a cage all night. What does this tell us? Playing seems to help the brain to grow and develop in important ways.

These findings are not limited to rats. Past studies have linked childhood play to both math readiness and language skills, suggesting that play may be important for school success.

Pretend play, in particular, has been studied intensively in recent years and is found to be very instrumental in brain development and skill-building.

Pretend Play

Children have always enjoyed pretending, and “pretend play” has been found to be very important for children’s social, mental, emotional, and even academic development.

When children pretend, they are using their imaginations, which requires that they symbolically substitute one thing for another. A box becomes a boat or a car; a flat rock is a plate, or a piece of pie; a doll is a baby. This use of imagination assists children in learning to think abstractly because they are holding an image in their minds, and mentally transforming it into something else. This can be linked to later creativity and problem-solving

When children pretend-play together, they learn to take a different mental perspective than their own; they recognize and act out emotions, motivations, cause-and-effect, and many other concepts. In addition, there are obvious social benefits of playing with other children and/or acting out roles that they may one day take on, such as policeman, mommy, daddy, teacher, and others.

Actually, though, any kind of games are good for stimulating the mind to think. Board games and card games of any kind keep the hands moving and keep the players thinking. They are beneficial for both children and adults, to keep their minds active. Jigsaw puzzles, crossword puzzles, word searches, and the like, can help adults to keep their minds alert and young

According to teacher and educator Linda Verlee Williams (6), “When children build a birdhouse or play a strategy game…they are using high-level nonverbal thinking – planning, visualizing, predicting – which will serve them well in school and beyond.”


When children are growing, their brains are growing and developing, too. They need to learn to visualize things, and this capacity for visualization is the precursor for later abilities to think abstractly. Reading and storytelling play a role in helping the child visualize pictures and events in her mind.

This imaging becomes the precursor for future symbolic and metaphoric thought. When young people are able to form and play with images in their minds, this imaging is the foundation for higher mathematics, science, philosophy, physics, and more. Playing and hearing or telling stories are crucial for young minds to learn to create their own images.

Watching television does not fill this need, because television presents ready-made images for the child to passively absorb. Only by creating its own internal images does the brain grow and develop. Listening to stories is ideal, because it causes the child to create pictures in her mind of what is happening in the story. Perhaps that is why so many parents intuitively read stories to their children on a regular basis.

Rough-and-tumble play

Perhaps surprisingly, rough-and-tumble play has been found to increase attention skills and impulse control. This activity seems to cause growth in the frontal lobes of the brain, which are responsible for things like rational thinking and delaying one’s actions when appropriate. This has caused some researchers to suggest that rough-and-tumble play may help the symptoms of ADHD. They suggest that children without the opportunity for this type of play may miss opportunities to develop social skills necessary to interact effectively with their peers.


In summary, pretend-play has been linked to both social and overall mental development and maturation. Rough-and-tumble play, which most kids love, has been linked to better ability to focus and better impulse control. Giving children breaks during the school day is essential to the ability to focus and pay attention. It is important for at least some of these breaks to include the opportunity for play.

So on winter vacation, on weekends, or in the evenings, if you see your children playing pretend games, they are doing something very beneficial. The only thing that could be better would be for you to join in. Adults can actually teach young children to play and pretend, as would happen if a dad or mom and his children set up a train set with villages and other items. Adults can help children learn to play with putty, draw and color, build things with blocks, and such: anything that you used to enjoy, and can still enjoy doing now, would be great for them, too. For one thing, they love spending time with you. And then, when they are off playing by themselves, they will have more ideas of how to be creative while having fun.



1. Azar, Beth, “It’s more than fun and games,” APA Monitor, March, 2002, Vol. 33, #3, 50-51.

2. Bergen, Doris, “The role of pretend play in cognitive development,” Early Childhood Research and Practice, Vol 4, #1 (accessed 12/2/12).

3. Pearce, Joseph Chilton, Evolution’s End, 1992, New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers.

4. Ratey, John J., Spark The Revolutionary Science of Exercise and the Brain (2008) New York, NY: Little, Brown & Co.

5. Smith, P.K. & Pellegrini, A.D. Learning through play. In Tremblay, RE, Boivin M. Peters RDeV. eds. Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development [online]. Montreal, Quebec: Centre of Excellence for Early Childhood Development and Strategic Knowledge Cluster on Early Child Development; 2008: 1-6. Available at:

6. Williams, Linda Verlee, Teaching for the Two-Sided Mind (1983) New York, New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc.

7. Accessed 12/8/12.