• Lynn Cukaj

Play & Childhood Development

“Come play with me!” This statement can be either uttered by a child or their parent but is an essential part of child development and parental responsibility. Play is a fundamental part of being a child. If you have ever watched any child explore their world through play either alone or with a peer, it is amazing to see the learning and experimentation that is happening for that young child or children.

Play is the academics of early childhood development.

Exploratory play aids in cognitive development because children can manipulate objects, check out the object’s properties, sort and organize them which in turn teaches spatial, numerical, and categorial relations (Broderick & Blewitt, 2020, p. 95). Therefore, one can infer that if play promotes cognitive development then it must promote academic achievement. How does one measure play with academic achievement? One area would be mathematical development through building blocks (Sarama et al., 2009). In this study (Sarama et al., 2009), the authors found that play supported the development of the mathematical concepts of classification, magnitude, enumeration, dynamics, spatial relations, and patterns and shapes. Sarama et al., (2009) offer examples of how to use specific toys and materials such as puzzles, building blocks, LEGOS, construction toys, card and board games, sand, and Play-Doh to aid in a child’s mathematical development. Parents can support the development of cognitive skills related to academic performance in math by having a wide range of materials and objects for their child to explore. These supports can either be done by observing their child and intervening in a sensitive way by providing encouragement and language to enhance in their child’s play experience (Sarama, et al., 2009).

Through play, children develop their capacity for paying attention, taking turns, listening to others, staying on task, and regulating behavior, which are referred to as executive functioning skills and are associated to better academic performance (Broderick, et al., 2020, p. 115). These executive functioning skills also include working memory, self-regulation, and cognitive flexibility which can be positively supported by teachers and parents who scaffold play with children (Broderick & Blewitt, 2020, p. 115). Therefore, one can infer if a child demonstrates decreased play this could be an indicator of a larger developmental issue or delay such as autism spectrum disorder (Broderick & Blewitt, 2020. p. 118). Since language is a vital part of play, play without language would not be as beneficial or engaging for a young child (Bodrova et al., 1996, p. 57). Therefore, if there is a language delay this could in turn affect a child’s cognitive development.

A recommendation for parents to support their child’s play would be to scaffold their children’s play. How can parents scaffold their child’s play? An example of this is through dramatic play such as when playing restaurant if a parent talks about the roles each child would play this type of problem solving promotes conflict resolution, use of language, and cognitive flexibility (Broderick & Blewitt, 2020, p. 116). Pretend play is also crucial for the development of theory of mind skills. Essentially these are perspective taking skills; knowing that others can act on purpose, and the knowledge of what another person’s intentions, desires, feelings, and beliefs would be (Broderick & Blewitt, 2020, p. 89). Play promotes development of cognitive and social abilities of children; therefore, it is an activity that is both symbolic and social (Bodrova, et al. 1996, p. 57).

Overall, play is an integral part of healthy childhood development and those needs need to be understood by the child’s parents. Parents need to build their knowledge base of ways to promote healthy play practices with their child/ren.

For more therapeutic activities and resources on how to incorporate Art Therapy into your life, read more from Lynn's Creative Expressions Blog.

Learn more about Art Therapy and Lynn Cukaj, Board Certified Art Therapist here: www.CreativeExpressionsConsulting.com


Bodrova, E. & Leong, D. (1996). Tools of the mind: the vygotskian approach to early childhood

education. Prentice Hall.

Broderick, P. & Blewitt, P. (2020). The life span: human development for helping professionals

(5th ed.). Pearson.

Sarama, J. & Clements, D. (Winter, 2009). Building blocks and cognitive building blocks:

playing to know the world mathematically. American Journal of Play.