The Science of Play: What Research Has to Say About Child Development in the Face of Fun

Play, though often dismissed as silly or unimportant, is actually this really critical element for brain development that sets the tone for a child’s whole life ahead. From figuring out relationships and forging emotional connections to demonstrating leadership skills and democratic behavior, as well as explore a more creative side, kids are doing a lot of work when they play, developing skills that will take them into adulthood.

The Importance of Unstructured Play

While activities guided by adults offer their own learning experiences, such as following directions or learning a new skill, many of the benefits that play provides in childhood development are contingent on children guiding their own narratives. Unstructured, child-led play allows children to strengthen bonds with other kids and begin to get comfortable advocating for themselves. When adults lead play, children lose some of the creative and leadership benefits they get when they take charge of their own experiences.

Aside from imaginative indoor or outdoor play, there are some deceptively basic activities great for helping children learn and have fun, too.

Sensory Play

Sensory play can be anything that stimulates the five senses during play. Think play-doh with its textural experience, scented markers for their different varied smells or even things like playing in the mud. Head outside and let kids explore the sights, sounds and scents of their own backyard. Sensory play is key in helping kids develop fine and gross motor skills, solve problems and find healthy ways to cope with frustration or anxiety in a hands-on setting.

Legos and Building Blocks

While blocks may seem a bit basic for grownup tastes, don’t discount the critical skills these classic toys can provide. Blocks can help kids get a sense of spatial reasoning, experience gravity in a tangible way, and if they include others, can help foster a sense of cooperation. Children building a more complex Lego structure together need to develop a capability for taking turns and brainstorming solutions with one another, critical skills that set the stage for later success.

Coloring Books

Whether they choose to stay within the lines or redefine them, the coloring book is a great way to get children to think about colors, placement and work on fine motor skills. And it doesn’t matter if you prefer a more digital take on the classic – this mandala coloring book app features plenty of great designs and all the colors you can imagine. It’s mess-free, too!

What matters more than giving your child a busy schedule is giving them the space to explore different modes of play, whether that’s out in nature, playing quietly with clay, blocks or coloring books. According to this study, children’s 3rd grade social skills dictate their future academic performance far more than test scores in the 8th grade. It’s clear that play sets the tone for skill development like nothing else can – take a more hands-off approach. The results may surprise you.