Related to
Early Years

Written by Keryn O’Neill, MA PGCertEdPsych, Knowledge Manager 

The foundations for tamariki growth and development are laid very early in their lives. The things that seem simple are often those that can have a large impact. The value of play is sometimes underestimated, and yet its benefits are many and varied.

Play is common amongst young animals including humans1 suggesting it has “an evolutionary role in helping young animals gain the skills needed for adulthood.”2

Pēpi are naturally motivated to learn about their world – to explore, be active, and to master a variety of tasks.3 The experiences tamariki have can encourage or discourage them from playing.4

What is play?

Play has proven difficult to define, with a range of criteria suggested by different researchers.5

However, some key components include: 

  • Tamariki want to do it for its own sake (i.e. intrinsically motivating)6
  • Tamariki are actively engaged7 
  • It is joyful or fun8
  • Flexibility.9

To better understand play, it has been suggested that it be thought of as being on “a spectrum, or continuum, that ranges from free play… (to) guided play and games.”10 Thought of in this way, play varies on several dimensions. One of these dimensions considers who initiates the play – the tamaiti or an adult. Another dimension considers who directs the play as its occurring.11 Different types of play have varied benefits for tamariki and contribute to different outcomes.12

A tamaiti can play alone or with others. Play can be structured or unstructured. Structured play is often, but not always, led by adults and has a set outcome; board games and playing sports are examples. On the other hand, unstructured play is tamaiti led and doesn’t have a fixed outcome. Examples include exploring outside and imaginative painting or drawing.13

Play is fun and so much more. It involves experimenting, taking risks and testing their limits.14

The benefits of play

Play is enjoyable and is something tamariki are naturally drawn to do. Play is more than fun – although that in itself is very important, play has many benefits for tamariki development. Their natural drive to play contributes to healthy physical and mental development.15

The whole child benefits from play, with many different types of skills being developed at the same time, including physical skills, cognition, as well as social-emotional skills.16

Following are some of the areas of tamariki development that benefit from play:

  • Physical aspects of play support motor skill development and improve health17
  • Supports the development of creativity18
  • Play with others is essential in supporting social development including being able to get on with their peers and strengthens social relationships19
  • Executive functions, including behaviour regulation and response inhibition20
  • Resilience and mental well-being21
  • Lower stress levels22
  • Language and early math skills.23 

As tamariki play they learn many crucial skills including working together and negotiating with others, and coping with challenges, which supports their resilience.24 The skills gained through plenty of play as tamariki help to support healthy adult development. These skills include cooperation, resourcefulness, and problem-solving.25

Play reflects the culture of tamariki and the adults in their life, learning different things from play accordingly.26

In a nutshell, “play is essential to the social, emotional, cognitive and physical wellbeing of children.”27

Play and the brain 

Many of the studies on play’s effect on the brain have been conducted in animals, particularly rats, and therefore may not be directly applicable to humans.28

Play affects brain structure and functioning, both directly and indirectly.29 Rats with more play opportunities tend to develop larger brains, stronger connections between brain regions, and better social skills than rats with fewer opportunities.30

Many different areas of the brain are involved in social play between young animals, although the specifics of how this works are not yet known.31 This social play relies on coordinated activity in the brain regions involved with social, emotional, and thinking processes, suggesting that play encourages these circuits to develop.32 

Play and adversity 

All tamariki can benefit from play, however it has particular benefits for tamariki who are going through a difficult or stressful time.33 

Play can provide pleasure and a sense of normality which supports tamariki who are dealing with stressful or traumatic situations.34 The shared enjoyment of parents and tamariki playing “downregulates the body’s stress response.”35 

Regular play was found to lower tamariki anxiety levels during a hospital stay.36 Play can help tamariki develop strategies for handling their stress and fear in healthcare situations, and support their self-esteem.37 

A study of 3 and 4-year-olds beginning preschool found that 15 minutes of play lowered their anxiety twice as much as those who listened to a teacher reading a story.38 

The impact of play during the Covid-19 pandemic has been studied by a number of researchers. Play is thought to be “an important coping mechanism for children during times of uncertainty such as the COVID19 pandemic.”39  

One study found that financial concerns were linked to parental stress, which in turn linked with tamariki emotional distress. However, pandemic-related pretend play was protective of tamariki wellbeing, lessening the impact of parental stress on tamariki wellbeing.40  

Pretend play can be helpful for tamariki in stressful situations providing a safe way to process their emotions, make sense of what’s going on, and to take control of their imaginary play at a time when they may have little control in their life.41 Tamariki who “play out stressful experiences generally exhibit decreases in anxiety and distress.”42  For example, if tamariki naturally included pandemic related ideas in their play, it may have helped them cope with the changes and challenges of this time.43

In another study conducted during the pandemic, parents reported that “their child’s mood and behavior improved after spending time outside playing in the yard, riding bikes, or taking walks with family.”44

“High amounts of play are associated with low levels of cortisol suggesting either that play reduces stress or that unstressed animals play more.”45

What about toys?

Thinking about play often leads to thinking about toys, yet there’s often no scientific evidence for the claims made in toy advertising.46 The interaction between tamaiti and their parent or caregiver is the crucial ingredient in supporting development, not so much the toy itself.47 

There are interesting differences found when tamariki have a greater or smaller number of toys available to them. A study of 12-month-olds and their mothers found that when fewer toys were available, they had longer periods of joint attention and higher quality joint attention.48 Joint attention, a shared experience in which both pēpi and adult are focused on the same thing, is important for the development of language and social skills.49 A study of toddlers found that having fewer toys available resulted in them playing for longer with a particular toy, and playing with toys in a greater variety of ways.50 

Many traditional toys are now being made in an electronic format51 but there’s no evidence to suggest that these can equal the benefits of their traditional equivalents.52 One possible reason for this is the tendency for parents to talk less with their tamariki when electronic toys are being used, in essence parents can “take a back seat to electronic toys.”53 

Given the importance of interactions between parent and tamaiti for their relationship and learning, electronic toys may not help learning, but rather get in the way of it.54 “Even the best-designed and most effective apps cannot replace real-life social interactions with adults and peers.”55


The natural drive to play that pēpi and tamariki have supports their development in many areas. Play takes many forms, each with differing benefits. Through play, tamariki can develop their physical skills, thinking ability as well as social and emotional skills.

Play benefits all tamariki, but particularly those facing distressing or challenging times.  Although toys are often used in play, the real benefits occur in the interactions between tamariki and their playmates – big and small.


  1. Sgro & Mychasiuk, 2020
  2. Wilkinson & Low, 2023, p. 2
  3. National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2018
  4. National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2018
  5. Schlesinger et al., 2020; Zosh et al., 2018
  6. Lillard et al., 2013; National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2018; Schlesinger et al., 2020; Yogman et al., 2018
  7. National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2018; Yogman et al., 2018
  8. Lillard et al., 2013; Schlesinger et al., 2020; Yogman et al., 2018
  9. Lillard et al., 2013; Schlesinger et al., 2020
  10. Zosh et al., 2018, p. 2
  11. Schlesinger et al., 2020
  12. Zosh et al., 2018, cited by Schlesinger et al., 2020
  13. Wilkinson & Low, 2023
  14. Yogman et al., 2018
  15.   Whitebread, 2017
  16. Schlesinger et al., 2020
  17. Schlesinger et al., 2020; Yogman et al., 2018
  18. Milteer et al., 2012; Wilkinson & Low, 2023
  19. National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2018; Sgro & Mychasiuk, 2020; Yogman et al., 2018
  20. Center on the Developing Child, 2015; Jelleyman et al., 2019; National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2018; Yogman et al., 2018
  21. Jelleyman et al., 2019; Gray, 2011; Milteer et al., 2012
  22. National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2018
  23. Yogman et al., 2018
  24. Milteer et al., 2012
  25. Yogman et al., 2018
  26. Yogman et al., 2018
  27. Milteer et al., 2012, p. e204
  28. Yogman et al., 2018
  29. Yogman et al., 2018
  30. Wilkinson et al., 2021
  31. Sgro & Mychasiuk, 2020
  32. Vanderschuren & Trezza, 2014
  33. Jesse & Gaynard, 2009, cited by Jones, 2018
  34. Graber et al., 2021; Yogman et al., 2018
  35. Atkinson et al., 2016, Blair et al., 2006, and, Laurent et al., 2016, cited by Yogman et al., 2018, p. 6
  36. Al-Yateem & Rossiter, 2017, cited by Jones, 2018
  37. Gold et al., 2014, cited by Jones, 2018
  38. Yogman et al., 2018
  39. Rueda-Posada et al., 2023, p. 2
  40. Thibodeau-Nielsen et al., 2021
  41. Thibodeau-Nielsen et al., 2021
  42. Thibodeau-Nielsen et al., 2021, p. 2
  43. Thibodeau-Nielsen et al., 2021
  44. Gilbert et al., 2021, p. 8
  45. Wang et al., 2011, cited by Yogman et al., 2018 p.5
  46. Healey & Mendelsohn, 2019
  47. Healey & Mendelsohn, 2019
  48. Koşkulu et al., 2021
  49. Koşkulu et al., 2021
  50. Dauch et al., 2018
  51. Zosh et al., 2015
  52. Milteer & Ginsburg, 2012, and, Parich-Morris et al., 2013, cited by Healey & Mendelsohn, 2019
  53. Zosh et al., 2015, p. 141
  54. Zosh et al., 2015
  55. National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2018, p. 9


Center on the Developing Child. (2015). Enhancing and Practicing Executive Function Skills with Children from Infancy to Adolescence Retrieved from 

Dauch, C., Imwalle, M., Ocasio, B., & Metz, A. E. (2018). The influence of the number of toys in the environment on toddlers’ play. Infant Behavior and Development, 50, 78-87. 

Gilbert, A. S., Schmidt, L., Beck, A., Kepper, M. M., Mazzucca, S., & Eyler, A. (2021). Associations of physical activity and sedentary behaviors with child mental well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic. BMC Public Health, 21(1), 1-12. 

Graber, K. M., Byrne, E. M., Goodacre, E. J., Kirby, N., Kulkarni, K., O’Farrelly, C., & Ramchandani, P. G. (2021). A rapid review of the impact of quarantine and restricted environments on children’s play and the role of play in children’s health. Child: Care, Health and Development, 47(2), 143-153. 

Gray, P. (2011). The decline of play and the rise of psychopathology in children and adolescents. American Journal of Play, 3(4), 443-463. 

Healey, A., & Mendelsohn, A. (2019). Selecting appropriate toys for young children in the digital era. Pediatrics, 143(1). 

Jelleyman, C., McPhee, J., Brussoni, M., Bundy, A., & Duncan, S. (2019). A cross-sectional description of parental perceptions and practices related to risky play and independent mobility in children: the New Zealand state of play survey. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 16(2), 262. 

Jones, M. (2018). The necessity of play for children in health care. Pediatric Nursing, 44(6), 303-305. 

Koşkulu, S., Küntay, A. C., Liszkowski, U., & Uzundag, B. A. (2021). Number and type of toys affect joint attention of mothers and infants. Infant Behavior and Development, 64, 101589. 

Lillard, A. S., Lerner, M. D., Hopkins, E. J., Dore, R. A., Smith, E. D., & Palmquist, C. M. (2013). The impact of pretend play on children’s development: A review of the evidence. Psychological Bulletin, 139(1), 1. 

Milteer, R. M., Ginsburg, K. R., & Mulligan, D. A. (2012). The importance of play in promoting healthy child development and maintaining strong parent-child bond: Focus on children in poverty. Pediatrics, 129(1), e204-e213. 

National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. (2018). Understanding motivation: building brain architecture that supports learning, health, and community participation: Working Paper No.14. Retrieved from 

Rueda-Posada, M. F., Thibodeau-Nielsen, R. B., Dier, S. E., Wilson-Dooley, A., Palermo, F., White, R. E., & Chung, C. (2023). Pandemic play moderates the relation between caregiver stress and child emotional distress in contexts of economic adversity. Frontiers in Psychology, 14, 1155617. 

Schlesinger, M. A., Hassinger-Das, B., Zosh, J. M., Sawyer, J., Evans, N., & Hirsh-Pasek, K. (2020). Cognitive behavioral science behind the value of play: Leveraging everyday experiences to promote play, learning, and positive interactions. Journal of Infant, Child, and Adolescent Psychotherapy, 19(2), 202-216. 

Sgro, M., & Mychasiuk, R. (2020). Playful genes: what do we know about the epigenetics of play behaviour? International Journal of Play, 1-14. 

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Whitebread, D. (2017). Free play and children’s mental health. The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health, 1(3), 167-169. 

Wilkinson, C., Gluckman, S. P., & Low, F. (2021). Screen time: The effects on children’s emotional, social and cognitive development. Retrieved from 

Wilkinson, C., & Low, F. (2023). Ahead of the game: Why play is the key to children’s future success. Retrieved from 

Yogman, M., Garner, A., Hutchinson, J., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Golinkoff, R. M., Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health, & Council on Communications and Media. (2018). The power of play: A pediatric role in enhancing development in young children. Pediatrics, 142(3), e20182058. 

Zosh, J. M., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Hopkins, E. J., Jensen, H., Liu, C., Neale, D., . . . Whitebread, D. (2018). Accessing the inaccessible: Redefining play as a spectrum. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 1124. 

Zosh, J. M., Verdine, B. N., Filipowicz, A., Golinkoff, R. M., Hirsh-Pasek, K., & Newcombe, N. S. (2015). Talking shape: parental language with electronic versus traditional shape sorters. Mind, Brain, and Education, 9(3), 136-144.