Cognitive Science: An Introduction/Psychology of Play

Psychology of PlayEdit

Play is an activity engaged in for enjoyment and recreation instead of for strictly utilitarian purposes. Play consists of amusing activities that are often beneficial to the development of the child’s cognitive growth, self-regulation, and general psychological welfare.[1] Play has shown to help stimulate a child’s social, physical, and emotional development.[2] Through play, children express their feelings, interpretations of events, and imagination. One important aspect of play is the development of children’s physical and social skills.[3]

The physical activity of play can help to stimulate children's brains. The resulting cognitive growth of play can help enhance children's anticipatory thinking and general intelligence.[4][5]

Research in the field of child psychology has demonstrated the advantages of play for a range of improved psychological outcomes, including learning,[6] emotional development,[7] and social skills.[8]

The Role of Play in Child DevelopmentEdit

The functional role of play has been linked to various benefits in the psychological development of children. Research has demonstrated the significance of socially interactive play in relation to different styles, such as physical, symbolic, pretend, and others.

Physical play has been speculated to be among the earliest to evolve in human children. Children's physical play can include climbing, jumping, dancing, simulated combat, and other activities. A recent review[9] summarized evidence that indicated a generally positive effects of moderately unsafe outdoor play among children aged 3–12 years. It revealed an interaction between physical play and playful combat for improved levels of social skills.

Symbolic Play can generally be seen to emerge in children after 12 months of age as they begin using sounds to deliberately convey meaning. In early childhood, this style of play becomes important to children’s play as they learn to speak, gesture, and understand their surroundings. A recent qualitative analysis indicates that children between 9–11 years almost universally suffuse their writing and speech with symbolic play.[10]

Pretend play involves an imaginative style of play in which children assign deliberately fictitious roles to objects or individuals. This exercise in mental simulation has been linked to the development in children’s anticipatory thinking. Pretend play has also been linked to the development of learning and reasoning skills, and executive functioning.[11] Further, it has shown to improve children’s grasp of their environment as well as their creative use of environmental resources.[12]

Neuroscience of PlayEdit

Neuroscience can help to inform our understanding of the structure and growth of the brain and nervous system during childhood development.[13] Neuroscientific research has investigated how playful experiences can support children's learning. Such features may lead to the capacity of children to observe, perceive, and benefit from interactions from a neurobiological perspective.[14]

Active engagement is linked to numerous networks involved in controlled, goal-driven behavior and reward. These processes include memory, cognitive flexibility, and adaptive learning.[15]

Play in Non-Human AnimalsEdit


Play is a common occurrence in humans and widely studied. Knowledge of play in non-human animals, however, is wanting.[16] With only thirty organisms, mostly mammals, demonstrating play behaviour, researchers are attempting to explore the function of play in greater detail.[17] Burghardt defines play in animals as: “repeated, seemingly non-functional behavior differing from more adaptive versions structurally, contextually, or developmentally, and initiated when the animal is in a relaxed, unstimulating, or low stress setting.”[18] Animals can engage in play on their own or with others.[16] Researchers hypothesize and study different criteria and contexts for play in non-human animals. Some criteria for play in non-human animals are described as a behaviour important for the development of competence in adulthood[19], to ensure short- and long-term development for coping with sudden events[20], demonstrating fairness for survival in adulthood by learning through fair play when young[21], and engaging in a pleasurable experience[22]. These categories that encompass the definition of play are explained in further detail below.

Preparing for AdulthoodEdit

Play as the development of competence for adulthood proposes that animals engage in play behaviour when they are free from threats and their overall well-being is preserved.[16] This allows the animal to engage in play behaviour because they do not need to focus on aspects of survival. Play generally occurs when resources or energy levels are adequate. For example, when needs for food and health are satisfied.[23] Therefore, when basic needs are met, an animal can then feel safe and content to engage in play. Play behaviour also allows for the development of sensory and motor skills, for example, reciprocal gentle grabbing and tickling in chimpanzees.[19] Moreover, play behaviour in young non-human animals ensures that they increase and advance their motor skills for use in adulthood.[19]

Adapting for the UnexpectedEdit

Play behaviour allows animals to cope with unexpected or sudden events.[20] During play, animals can perform different actions in an unpredictable fashion which present as a way for the animal to practice for real or serious survival situations.[20] In a cognitive, or emotional capacity, play allows animals to adapt to novel situations such as surprise and disorientation.[20] A study by Richter and others notes that although play encourages preparedness for uncertainty, animals may experience an increased level of anxiety.[20] This finding is interpreted as an adaptive benefit because if the animal is generally on higher alert, they may not encounter as many unexpected situations.[20]

Fair Play for SurvivalEdit

When non-human animals engage in play fighting within partners or groups, they learn to pay attention to multiple social communication cues.[19] Play fighting usually involves rules and allows the animal to assess the risk of the situation, whether it be serious or for fun.[19] Following the rules of fair play allow the animal to learn cooperation and equity for survival.[21] For example, if resources are limited, the animal can choose to keep the resources they acquire to themselves or gather or share resources with others which may derive a more successful result.[21]

A Pleasurable ExperienceEdit

As previously mentioned, play can occur when an animal is free of threats and their well-being is preserved.[16] Similarly, this could be defined as a low stress situation and animals use play as a way to regulate levels of stress.[18] Play is also a way to limit boredom when other survival needs are met.[18] Examples of pleasurable play are exploration of objects, chasing, nipping, and tumbling.[22] Engaging in playful behaviour can result in a rewarding experience due to an opioid-like trigger.[16] Social play with others can also act as a reward in itself, for example, play as a reinforcer can be stronger than other activities or items such as food.[16]

Play Across the Animal KingdomEdit

The table below lists examples of play behaviour in commonly studied animals.
Animal Example(s) of Play Behaviour
Fish Leaping over items in the water, batting balls, leapfrogging over other fish
Frogs Wrestling, riding bubbles
Lizards Tug of war
Turtles Pass floating balls and bottles, tickle with foreclaws
Primates Gentle grabbing and tickling, motherese vocalizations, facial expression mimicry, covering eyes with hands
Dogs Facial expression mimicry, bowing
Cats Hit and run attacks, hiding, self-handicapping
Dolphins Passing a ball back and forth
Squirrels Wrestling, chasing

Sources: [24], [19], [25], [26], [27], [28].


Although researchers are still filling the voids of knowledge on the topic of animal play, they have come to understand that the inherent reason for play involves multiple factors and that the connection between the level or availability to play is dependent on an animal’s well-being.[16] From skill acquisition to social emotional elements, play in animals can be a fascinating topic.


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  2. Fehr, K., & Russ, S. (2016). Pretend play and creativity in preschool-age children: Associations and brief intervention. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 10(3), 296–308
  3. Shonkoff, J.P., Phillips, D.A. (2000) From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development. National Academy of Sciences Press: Washington DC. Accessed on May 8, 2015.
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  10. Burrell, A., & Beard, R. (2016). Playing with words: investigating the use of language play in the persuasive writing of 9–11-year-olds. Education 3-13, 1–16
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  12. Hoffmann, J. D., & Russ, S. W. (2016). Fostering pretend play skills and creativity in elementary school girls: A group play intervention. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 10(1), 114–125.
  13. Nelson, C.A. & Bloom, F.E. (1997), Child Development and Neuroscience. Child Development, 68: 970-987. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.1997.tb01974.x
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  21. a b c Schank, J., Burghardt, G., & Pellis, S. (2018). Toward a Theory of the Evolution of Fair Play. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 1167.
  22. a b Jorgensen, I. & Wirman, H. (2016). Multispecies Methods, Technologies for Play. Digital Creativity, 27(1), 37-51.
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  28. Marks, K., Vizconde, D., Gibson, E., Rodriguez, J., & Nunes, S. (2017). Play Behavior and Responses to Novel Situations in Juvenile Ground Squirrels. Journal of Mammalogy, 98(4), 1202-1210.