Play to Learn: Can play foster learning?
Updated: Nov 26, 2019
I often get asked the question, "But what are they learning?" when I tell people I use play in therapy. Here are just a few of the things children can learn while engaging in play. Developing self-confidence and a healthy personality are among the many benefits of play. provides children with opportunities to develop important life skills such as problem solving, team work, navigating social situations, and emotion regulation. But what about, "real" learning? Well, play has been shown to improve memory and facilitates brain growth (Gordon et. al., 2003); as well as increase attention within an academic setting (especially in math and reading) (Pelligrini & Holmes, 2006).
In general, there are two types of intelligences. There's what called "crystallized intelligence" and "fluid intelligence." Crystallized intelligence refers to what one has learned through education and experience, you can loosely equate this to book learning or knowledge. Crystallized intelligence tends to get better (increases) with age and experience. This makes sense in that as one ages he or she is exposed to more things and has more opportunities to practice/master new skills and information. Now, fluid intelligence is associated with one's ability to reason and problem solve when given unique, novel situations. This type of intelligence develops independent of crystallized intelligence and can serve as "back up" when prior knowledge isn't sufficient to solve a problem. Stephen Rushton explains, "Children’s brains need to be immersed in real life, hands-on, and meaningful learning experiences that are intertwined with a commonality and require some form of problem-solving" (Rushton, 2011). Play allows a child to not only access both types of intelligences, but foster growth and improvement in a manner that is relevant, instinctive, and engaging.
Unstructured and pretend play promotes all of these skills with the added benefit of practicing important social skills. Children encounter problems, have to brain-storm, communicate ideas with one another, and practice impulse control while they engage in play. As Fred Rogers aptly stated, "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."
Gordon, N.S, Burke, S, Akil, H., Watson, S.J., & Panskepp, J. (2003). Socially-induced brain ‘fertilization’: Play promotes brain derived neurotrophic factor transcription in the amygdala and dorsolateral frontal cortex in juvenile rats. Neuroscience Letters 341(1), 17-20.
Pelligrini, A.D. & Holmes, R. M. (2006). The role of recess in primary school. In D.Singer, R. Golinkoff, & K. Hirsh-Pasek (Eds.), Play=learning: How play motivates and enhances children’s cognitive and socio-emotional growth. New York: Oxford University Press.
Rushton, S. (2011). Neuroscience, Early Childhood Education and Play: We are Doing it Right! Early Childhood Education Journal, 39(2), 89-94.