What is the point of Play?

Part 2 - Play is the Key Criteria for Healthy Brain Growth.

What do we all want for our children in primary school? We want reading, writing and maths right? (Sigh!)

What most people don’t know is that the neurological structures a child needs for those tasks are not “hard-wired” into the brain. By that I mean they are not present at birth. The child has to build the structures in their brain to accomplish these higher academic tasks (including communication and language).

The irony is that sitting at a desk listening to an adult speak is not the way a child develops these essential structures and is in fact a very ineffective method of learning altogether. The times when a child is moving freely, testing their limits and using their imagination are the times when this fundamental brain growth takes place at its best.

You can all imagine the adult who shouts, “Daniel! Stop being a pirate and come and do your homework.”, never once realising that being a pirate is the very thing that will give Daniel the fundamental structure in his brain to do the homework in the first place!

Neuroscientists seem to be moving towards an activity dependent model of brain growth which simply means that what we do in childhood is what grows our brains.  And the activity that builds the brain more than any other? Play! We can now see simple, freely chosen play as underpinning every academic discipline a child needs throughout their life.

When Daniel is being a pirate he is using his imagination. A study in 2015 showed that when using the imagination the brain lights up like a Christmas tree creating a neural network across the entire upper brain. This research makes a compelling argument that imaginative play is one of the most powerful brain development activities a child can ever experience. What else do we need a neural network for? Only every academic task a child needs in school from problem solving to communication to mathematical thinking. In a very real sense being a pirate is much more important than the homework could ever be. (Try telling that to your child’s teacher!)


What many adults also do not see is the inter-relationship between the types of play and a whole array of learning and development. For instance in almost every case of physical delay (or neuro-motor immaturity) in a child there is a corresponding delay in their communication and language. The physical movements a child undertakes do not just develop the parts of the brain associated with movement but parts of the brain associated with almost every aspect of their development. And when do children make these essential spontaneous movements? When they are playing of course. Not when an adult lines them up and tries to find out who is fastest but when children joyfully engage in a whole range of movements purely for their own enjoyment. The problem once again is that if one does not recognise the link between spontaneous, joyful movement and neurological development then it is easy to misunderstand, restrict, or dismiss it as frivolous. Far from being frivolous these playful movements are a key criteria for healthy brain growth.

Studies in Play Deprivation indicate that as part of a spectrum of multiple deprivation lack of play can cause the brain of a child to be up to 30% smaller and malformed. This has been born out by studies in other mammals.

Bob Hughes describes Locomotor Play (one of 16 essential play types) as…

“Movement in any or every direction for its own sake….”

One interesting link is the correlation between physical development and communication and language acquisition. There are many reasons for this link between movement and communication one of which is that physical movement uses a neural network that overlaps areas for communication and language in the brain. Another is quite simply that children learn fine and gross motor skills through play and gross motor skills help children develop fine motor skills. The finest and most complex motor skill a child ever uses is the intricate movements of the tongue to form words.

We also know that symbolic play (another of Bob Hughes play types) underpins communication and language and helps activate many of the same areas of the brain. Language is itself symbolic and so every time a child pretends a stick is a wand or creates an internal voice for their action figures they are building essential structures for communication.


If you can convince parents that far from being frivolous, the playful experiences of children underpin high level thinking and neurological growth then hopefully they will understand that when you send them home covered in mud, paint, glitter and grass stains you are actually helping them to read, write and problem solve. (Good luck with that though!)

Article by Ben Kingston-Hughes (Managing Director of Inspired Children)

In part 3 of this blog we discuss the immense therapeutic benefits of play and why it is essential for mental health, emotional well-being and positive behaviour.

Part 3 - Play supports emotional well-being and has enormous therapeutic benefits.

If you want more details about how play profoundly affects children get in touch with us or book one of our award winning training courses.

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What is the Point of Play - Part 1

What is the Point of Play - Part 2

What is the Point of Play Part 3

Where Play sits on the Hierarchy of Needs

Is Homework Damaging Children?

More coming soon!