The Role of Play In Human Development

The role of play in human development and psychotherapy

“Enough playing around!”
“Playtime’s over!”

“Stop playing and pay attention.”

As a child therapist, I hear these kinds of directives from parents asking their children to focus their attention on conversation with me during therapy sessions. Parents are often surprised to find out that I’m not asking for attention to shift away from play. In fact, I will actively encourage play in therapy.

Play has long been acknowledged as a necessary element to healthy child development. Counselors, educators, doctors, neuroscientists, we all agree that without play, children would fail to develop healthy attachment relationships, reflective capacities, and emotional resourcefulness. Why, then, is our culture so afraid of play?

The role of play in human development

Play is the means by which children learn to navigate their environment, form healthy relationships, and learn to communicate. Separating “play” from “learning” interferes with the role of play in learning. Here I will review this connection, as well as the role of play in human development more broadly.

From conception to age two, responsive and playful caregiving styles allow an infant to foster a secure attachment to caregivers in their life. These silly and joyful interactions contribute to positive socioemotional development later in childhood. From 3 through 5 years of age, play is the means by which children explore their environment, developing imaginative and creative capacities that will allow them to learn, read, and interact in educational settings. From 6 to 8 years of age, play remains a crucial element of learning.

Our culture separates “play” from obtaining knowledge and building skills. This distinction may be part of why many children struggle to engage in the early grades of primary school. Play based learning strengthens motivation and outcomes in ways that academic and skill building approaches often fail to promote.

Play is part of learning. It’s a meaningful practice. Through play, children learn about their environment. Play also promotes resilience through learning to tolerate frustration and confront new challenges. Think of a child struggling to maintain the structural integrity of a block building. Why does it keep falling down? In this example, the fact that play is joyful motivates the child to make mistakes, tolerate frustration, and acquire new skills. Furthermore, the iterative nature of play results in the practicing of these skills, trying out new possibilities, revising theories on what does and doesn’t work, and identifying new challenges.

To get even more technical about it, free play in childhood has been linked with proper development of the prefrontal cortex. Play activity wires this area of the brain, also known as the executive control center. Properly developing this part of the brain early on promotes the ability to regulate emotions, solve problems, and form healthy relationships throughout the lifespan. One study even found that the social skills developed through play in 3rd grade were the best predicter of academic success in 8th grade.

Considering the importance of play in this light raises questions about the separation of play from skills building in academic and therapeutic settings for children. As a therapist working with humans of all ages, I often think about the role of play in psychotherapy.

The role of play in psychotherapy

There are many different ways to go about engaging children in therapy. In my view, these break down into two large groups: Directive, skills focused approaches, and non-directive, play focused approaches. The former category involves the teaching of coping skills, including ways to relax, regulate emotions, or challenge unhelpful thinking. The latter category allows children to take the lead on the assumption that play will promote the development of these same skills through use of the therapeutic space and relationship.

Non-directive approaches (like play therapy) operate on the assumption that children have a natural drive to learn. I would argue that children won’t learn unless they want to. Play therapy attempts to harness intrinsic motivation, which means that children find motivation within themselves to participate because they’ve identified it as fun or in their best interest to do so. This differs from extrinsic motivation – motivation based on the imperative to please a parent or receive a treat.

Intrinsically motivated children develop interest, curiosity, and self-determination in therapy. Extrinsically motivated children often struggle to engage. This is why children who view therapy as punishment for a behavior often fail to engage. They don’t experience it as an opportunity they can benefit from.

When considering whether therapy is an appropriate service for your child, avoid discussing therapy as a consequence of a concerning behavior. Children who hear statements like “if you didn’t hit your brother, you wouldn’t have to talk to the counselor” will most often experience difficulty receiving the benefits of treatment. Instead, try offering therapy as a choice. Let them know it could be fun. Inform that they will be able to choose between different activities in therapy. Promoting self-determination promotes intrinsic motivation and vice versa.

I tell parents right from the start: We will be playing in therapy. Telling stories with toys, drawing pictures, playing card games. It isn’t time to be serious, quiet down, and listen to the adult talk. As the therapist, it’s my job to listen. Through free play and collaboration with parents, I assess where the child is at developmentally and conceptualize what might be at the root of the concerning behaviors. Coping skills come with time and are often developed organically as part of a developmental process.

Think of it this way: Therapy for adults isn’t often top down and directive. If you went to therapy and your therapist immediately asked you to demonstrate your ability to quiet down, listen, and learn skills, would you return? Probably not. You would want your therapist to be the one listening. Why do we imagine that children don’t deserve the same consideration and courtesy?

Although communication looks different for children than it does for adults – playing in addition to verbal discussion – I believe that children deserve to be listened to. In order to listen to children, we must engage on their terms. The ability to “talk so kids will listen and listen so kids will talk” (to quote authors Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish) involves active engagement in free play. And free play, as this article has argued, promotes development in the areas that are necessary to develop if we are to tackle the most common behavioral issues seen in children.

Reach out to learn more about child therapy.

Written by Luke Romano, M.Phil.Ed., M.S.Ed.

If you’re interested in exploring these concepts in greater depth you can contact me at:

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References & further reading

Adele, F. and Mazlish, E. (1980). How to talk so kids will listen & listen so kids will talk. New York, New York: Scribner.

Caprara, G.V., Barbaranelli, C., Pastorelli, C., Bandura, A., & Zimbardo, P.G. (2000). Prosocial foundations on children’s academic development. Psychological Science, 11(4), 302-306.

Meersand, P. and Gilmore, K.J. (2018). Play therapy: A psychodynamic primer for the treatment of young children. Arlington, Virginia: American Psychiatric Association Publishing.

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