Play, Cognition, and Learning

It is difficult, if not impossible, to shed any bias when the word “play” in relation to children comes up. We played as children and that conjures some of our best childhood memories. We cannot fathom a world where children are not allowed to play. Nor should we.

However, the question raised these days on Twitter is not whether play is important to children, but to what extend it aids development and learning, and whether play-based pedagogies are justified in early years.

For that reason, I won’t discuss play through anthropological, historical or cultural lens. I am linking David Whitebread’s paper (The Importance of Play) and invite you to read it. Play is “ubiquitous among humans, both as children and as adults, and children’s play is consistently supported by adults in all societies and cultures. Cultural attitudes, transmitted to the children predominantly through the behavior of their parents, affect how much play is encouraged and supported, to what age individuals are regarded as children who are expected to play, and the extent to which adults play with children.”

I will focus on a review by Lillard et al that was published two years ago (2012) –The Impact of Pretend Play on Children’s Development: A Review of the Evidence. I chose this one because the findings are in dissonance with what most people believe(d). We all hear how play is “crucial” for the development of creativity, for instance. Well, according to the evidence, it is not.


Defining Play 

The authors start by defining “play” using the four criteria proposed by Karsnor and Peppler (1980)

  1.  Flexibility – denotes that play behaviors vary from real ones in form (they might be exaggerated, or truncated) and/or content (one might play at eating with a stick instead of a spoon).
  2. Positive affect – touches on the idea that people look like they are having fun when they play.
  3. Nonliterality – refers to the fact that, in play, behaviors lack their usual meaning while paradoxically retaining it; Bateson (1972) famously pointed out that, “the playful nip denotes the bite, but it does not denote what would be denoted by the bite” (p. 317).
  4. Intrinsic motivation –  suggests voluntariness: One engages in theactivity by choice for its own sake.

Theoretical Background

The theoretical background is built based on P.K. Smith’s relationships between play and positive developmental outcomes:

  1. Play is crucial for the optimal development. For play to be “crucial” there has to be a direct causal relationship between play and the outcome in development being observed.  Play causes the development and it is consistently found (i.e. if pretend play causes creativity, then all children who use this type of play should be more creative).
  2. Equifinality of play – in other words, play helps some developments, but it is only one possible route. Other activities can work as well or better (e.g. talk with an adult, or child being read a story).
  3. Play as an epiphenomenon play is a byproduct of some other selected-for capability, but in and of itself makes no contribution to development; rather, the other activity or condition to which it is sometimes attached is the actual contributor.

The authors point to two developmental theorists that align with the first view (Vygotsky) and the third view (Piaget).


“For Vygotsky (1978), pretense has a crucial developmental role, because it is the activity by which children learn to separate referent from object. In play, children first understand that actions (and objects on which one might act) can be separated from reality and can be based on the meaning of a given situation rather than on the physical properties of objects (Vygotsky, 1967). In this way, for example, a banana could become a phone in a pretense situation and the child could act on it as if it were a phone, inhibiting how he or she would act on it if it were a banana. The upshot of this is that children develop abstract thought through pretend play (Vygotsky, 1967). In addition, because reality must be inhibited, children also develop inhibitory control through pretending (Bodrova & Leong, 1996).”

“In contrast, for Piaget (1962), pretend play is more an index than a promoter of development.  Its appearance around 18 months indicates the development of the semiotic function, which also allows for deferred imitation and language. The semiotic function separates an idea from its referent, a memory from its context, and an object from its label, allowing one to entertain and elaborate on mental content that is separate from the physical, present reality.”

Methodological Problems

Lillard et al identify at least 3 common methodological problems of the research they studied. All of them stemmed from a lack of rigor in research in the past in addition to an “ethos of play” that pervades the literature.

  • Correlational findings are often discussed as being causal.
  • Failure to replicate.
  • Experimenter bias. The authors state that “cognitive development research rarely uses masked experimenters”, and stress the importance of experimenters being “masked” insofar as possible: that is, unaware of (a) the hypotheses being tested and (b) participants’ conditions.”

Other problems  – “very small sample sizes, nonrandom assignment, confounding implementer with intervention, confounding content with pretend play, and unsound statistical practices” are mentioned.

“Methodological problems are so prevalent in this literature that meta-analysis is precluded. Because so many studies in this area are methodologically unsound, the current literature base is best suited to a descriptive review.”


Nonsocial cognitive aptitudes, social skills, language and self-regulation are analyzed. The authors use three types of studies for each – correlational studies (C) , experimental studies (E), and training studies(T) (see a table sample below).Table sample



I summarized the findings in the chart below, using their 3 criteria (whether pretend play and developmental outcome were in a causal, equifinal or epiphenomenal relationship):

Causal Equifinal Epihenomenonal
Nonsocial cognitive aptitudes Creativity No Yes
Conservation Null Yes
Problem solving Inconsistent Yes, construction, but not pretend play
Intelligence No*could be reverse (from intelligence to pretend play not vice versa)
Reasoning Inconsistent Yes
Social skills Solitary pretense Inconsistent Yes
Social pretense *”Potential causal relationship between drama training and social skills.”
Language Symbolic understanding: early language Possible“The evidence that pretend play and language are related early in development is compelling.”
Literacy Likely“Ample research has shown that exposure to literacy play materials (like plastic letters or a model post office) increases literacy. This is similar to findings with board games and math.”
Narrative LikelyThe research reviewed here suggests that providing toys does not enhance new stories but does help with story retelling. Story memory is helped by role play, probably due to embodied cognition. Children who pretend more also appear to tell more elaborate stories, although when older they were not better at story comprehension. Thus experimental and correlational studies had qualified results for the hypothesis that pretend play causes narrative development.”
Self-regulation Executive function(inhibitory control, working memory, attention) Inconclusive(positive correlations but inconsistent)
Emotion regulation Possible(although difficult to separate from alternative explanations)


In other words, play does not *cause* certain cognitive developments. Creativity, for instance, might already be a child’s trait *before* engaging in play. That is consistent with my own observations as a teacher. Retrospectively, I think of some of my 2nd grade students who engaged in pretense play and role-play spontaneously outside, on the playground. There wouldn’t be a day without them preparing a “scene” and then proudly performing before their classmates. I would take photos and even record these performances. However, out of these five students who consistently engaged in pretense play only two of them showed creativity in other tasks such as, say, writing a story or creating a math game. Conversely, students who did not engage in this type of social play were very creative in class.

On the other hand, each time I use a game (may it be in math, language – you name it), children behave differently. Their motivation increases, and with that, also attention and risk-taking in learning – they feel free to try more ways to achieve a task, negotiate rules, and show more resilience in solving a potential problem. While this is not a cause, it sets the context for non-cognitive elements to aid learning – attitude towards a task matters.



“The causal position is that pretend play has a unique and important role in promoting healthy development. This might seem like a straw-person view, but the claim is repeatedly made in the literature, as we have shown throughout this article. If this position were supported, then for any development pretend play causes, strong, consistent, and unique correlations should be seen between pretend play and the development. We concluded that the causal account is possible, based on existing research, for four of 11 developments reviewed here: reasoning, language, narrative, and emotion regulation. Of these developments, the causal account is most plausible for language, as pretend play is quite consistently related to it. However, correlation is not causation, and reverse causality (from language to play) is shown in some studies. An underlying variable like adult interaction could also be important, with pretend play possibly being epiphenomenal to intensive developmentally oriented adult interaction, explaining results from training studies. For narrative development, conclusions were similar, although the database is not as dense and the domain is complicated by the different aspects of narrative showing somewhat different results (unlike language, where results were fairly consistent regardless of aspect of language measured). Emotion regulation and reasoning are more difficult to evaluate given the scarcity of solid research. For all other areas, the causal account is not supported by available research: Correlations to pretend play were inconsistent for no clear reason (creativity, theory of mind, social skills) or did not exist (conservation, problem solving), or pretend play had no unique role since other training worked as well (intelligence), or results were limited to subsets of children or measures (executive function).”

Although to most readers this review seems to contradict their beliefs (and in some cases, their own knowledge – research and studies they read), the authors clearly advocate for a child-centered classroom in their chapter – Implications for Classroom which I copy-paste below:

Implications for Educational Settings

“Despite the poor state of the evidence on pretend play’s benefits, research does not advocate what is often offered as the only alternative to a playful approach in educational settings: adult-centered instruction. Research in U.S. schools has clearly shown that adult-centered learning environments are less positive for young children than more active, child-centered approaches (Stipek, Feiler, Daniels, & Milburn, 1995) dubbed “playful learning” (D. G. Singer, Golinkoff, & Hirsh-Pasek, 2006), like Reggio Emilia, Montessori, and Tools of the Mind. Developmental science does not support young children sitting in desks while teachers lecture at them.

What else about child-centered classrooms leads to more positive developmental outcomes if it turns out not to be the pretend play? Child-centered classrooms differ from teacher-centered ones in several qualities. Like pretend play, child-centered classrooms often provide free choice, interesting hands-on activities for which the child is intrinsically motivated, and peer interactions. Unlike pretend play, these elements have been shown in independent research to be consistently associated with more positive outcomes (see summaries of the literatures in Lillard, 2005). Compared with free play programs, more structured classrooms with carefully designed, challenging, hands-on activities that confer learning appear to help children’s development the most (Chien et al., 2010; Lillard, 2012; Lillard & Else-Quest, 2006). Do these findings regarding pretend play mean children need no time to play (pretend or otherwise)? First, there is good research showing that recess restores attention in conventional school settings where the basic instructional method involves children sitting at desks and listening to teachers (Pellegrini & Smith, 1993). In addition, exercise, be it from athletics or recess, improves cognitive function (Lillard & Erisir, 2011; Ratey, 2008). A perfectly sufficient reason for play time might simply be that it is fun (Power, 2000). Pretend play is also relaxing, associated with more heart rate variability (Hutt et al., 1989, p. 12). Finally, the research reviewed here often suggested that adult interaction might be the real underlying cause of positive effects from various interventions. Pretend play might be useful because it is a setting that can facilitate positive adult– child interaction (Paley, 2005; P. K. Smith et al., 1981). “

When discussing their methodology, Lillard et all also suggest that researchers should consider other benefits of play as well:

“Finally, we would recommend that experimenters open themselves to other potential benefits of pretend play. Well-being and a sense of personal agency are two possibilities. When children are pretending they appear to feel in control. This might be mitigated in many experiments, when children are instructed to pretend, but experimental conditions might be designed that minimize the sense of external control. Another issue to consider is the reverse of what was investigated here: whether absence of play is harmful, as has been shown in some animals (Pellis & Pellis, 2009).”

Moreover, in the Conclusion they state:

“Meanwhile, the lack of existing evidence that pretend play helps development should not be taken as an allowance for school programs to employ traditional teacher-centered instructional approaches that research has clearly shown are inferior for young children. The hands-on, child- driven educational methods sometimes referred to as “playful learning” (Hirsh-Pasek et al., 2009) are the most positive means yet known to help young children’s development.”


Well…as for me, I encourage play whenever possible. Jackie Schneider and I seem to agree.


2 Comments to “Play, Cognition, and Learning”

  1. Reblogged this on Psychology & Statistics Tutor:Mentor and commented:
    The importance of Play for learning development~

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