Brains of the Future | The Cognitive Power of Play

About this project

What can’t play do for us? As we’ve already seen, it’s a way for children to develop a diversity of physical benefits that will serve them well into their schooling days and beyond. But play is also essential for developing and enhancing cognitive function.


In the second of this four-part series, we will explore the cognitive benefits of play and how it is a key driver for future creativity. We sat down with Dr Caroline Moul, a research psychologist who teaches the social-cognition stream of the University of Sydney’s Developmental Psychology course, to discuss why play is so powerful.

Image: Play Along the Way

Children’s play provides “the roots of reading”

 It might be easy to label play as being nothing more than a way for kids to let off steam while the parents get some R&R for themselves (for once!), but researchers have been investigating the true benefits of play for decades.

In fact, in one review conducted by a team of experts in childhood development, Children’s Play: The roots of reading, they found play can help kids “learn basic literacy skills, social awareness and creative problem-solving.”

So is it time to reconsider how we integrate play into a child’s everyday life?

Play is a powerful driver behind creativity

The traditional classroom isn’t exactly dying out, but there’s been a raft of more play-based, free-form educational facilities come to the fore in Western countries over the past decade or so. Dr Moul says the rise of these non-traditional and alternative learning centres is helping us rethink what kids should actually be learning in the classroom.

“There’s a very topical conversation happening at the moment, and that’s whether we are maybe teaching our kids to ‘learn and churn’ instead of helping them develop their critical thinking and creative capabilities.”

Dr Moul says the settings and even the objects that children play with can have a remarkable impact on their creativity.

“One of the areas in which kids can really blossom creatively is with less-prescriptive play objects. If you have something that’s very clearly a Batmobile, for example, then it’s likely to end up being a Batmobile to the child. If you have the classics like blocks or Lego, or sticks and stones in an outdoor setting, then that encourages children to be very creative, to make up their own stories and rethink objects.”

Image: The Backyard, Indooroopilly Shopping Centre

Sharing a storyline

It’s this ability to create mental images during play that Dr Moul says is crucial from an early age.

“Mental imagery is something that develops over the early years. So if you look at kids about the age of two or three, for example, most of them aren’t playing together. They are instead playing next to each other in this kind of ‘parallel play’ manner. As they develop, they’re able to share a common storyline and start to actually play together within the same narrative.

“Play allows kids to work on that in their own space. They can jump in and out of a collaborative play experience as their development allows. That’s one of the most fundamental things play allows – that kind of creativity and mental representation.”


3 cognitive benefits of play

 So how can you convince parents, teachers and carers to give children more playtime to feed their brain? Here are six talking points to bring up:


  • Play grows brain cells: It’s not exactly a human study, but researchers found that rats who engaged in bouts of ‘rough-and-tumble’ play had higher levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BNDF), which is essential for brain growth and health.


  • Play makes kids focus on academics: Another study found schoolkids who were given unstructured breaks where they could enjoy free play were more focused on their academics after that period of playtime.


  • Play improves language skills: Edward Fisher, a psychologist who examined the effects of play on young minds, analysed 46 published studies of the cognitive benefits of play and cited a direct link between play and language-development skills – particularly when that play involved pretend or symbolic activities.

So there you have it – play is not only a way to develop motor skills and help kids make friends, it’s also critical in brain health and language skills.


Play On! is a huge supporter of play. We create bespoke children’s playgrounds that you can find in shopping centres and public waiting areas all around Australia, with the goal of encouraging children to learn and develop – both mentally and physically – through play. You can find out more about what we’re doing for childhood play here.

We can customise to your needs. Get in touch!

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