Play and playing has long been considered to be beneficial towards child development. Our intuitions regarding its benefits are supported by research. The areas of development play can foster are manifold and overlapping; from impulse control, to emotional regulation, cognitive development, language development and even enhanced abilities towards understanding mathematics- play can foster them all.

Risky Play

Today though, parents, guardians and other adult supervisors may find themselves restricting risky play as a means of protecting children from injury or harm. Rough and tumble play, climbing trees and other heights, Hide-and-Seek, may seem scary to adults- however they serve an important evolutionary purpose. Risky play teaches children to test their limits of fear and push these boundaries within their own comfort zone.

Research done on rats, as well as monkeys show that depriving mammals of risky play has adverse effects on their development [1]. Deprived test subjects were less adaptive to new situations than those who had been allowed to creatively (even if somewhat risk-takingly) explore and play in their surroundings.

Such findings have contributed to the emotion regulation theory of play—the theory that one of play’s major functions is to teach young mammals how to regulate fear and anger.  In risky play, youngsters dose themselves with manageable quantities of fear and practice keeping their heads and behaving adaptively while experiencing that fear.  This teaches young mammals (and children) how to control their negative emotions like fear, aggression and anger in real-life situations.

Imaginative Play

Pretend play or make-believe play that allows children the freedom to fantasize, to come with new possibilities and scenarios encourages divergent thinking and problem solving in children. It also contributes to major areas of cognitive development, such as language, giving children the space to express their ideas through the use of symbolism, adjectives and future tenses.

Imaginative play also helps build empathy in children , through ‘theory of mind’, the awareness that other people have thoughts different from us, and people are capable of seeing a variety of perspectives (Jenkins & Astington, 2000; Leslie, 1987; Singer & Singer, 1990; Singer & Singer, 2005).

Once again, even pretend-play allows children to self-regulate in a number of ways. First, it teaches children to regulate their anger and aggressive behavior. Fights and disruptions are a part of play, giving rise to anger and hurt. But if  play must continue, children must learn to overcome their anger in a non-aggressive manner.

Pretend play allows the expression of both positive and negative feelings… and the ability to integrate emotion with cognition (Jent, Niec, & Baker, 2011; Seja, & Russ, 1999; Slade and Wolf, 1999).

It also teaches children social skills like civility, delayed gratification (through sharing of toys), communication and problem solving.

The Harmful Effects of Deprivation of Play

Evidence suggests that the increase in mental illnesses seen in children over the past few decades are directly linked to the decrease in playing opportunities children are getting. Without play, children are missing out on the important learning of self-regulation of behavior as well as emotions.

‘Children are designed by nature to teach themselves emotional resilience by playing in risky, creative, emotion-inducing ways.  In the long run, we endanger them far more by preventing such play than by allowing it. And, we deprive them of fun.’ [2]

The Takeaway

Children must be allowed to play in unstructured environments, in imaginative ways, even if the play seems risky to adults. This is directly linked to enhanced brain power, better social integration, and better cogniive and emotional development.

Thus a child who is allowed to play, is emotionally, physically and cognitively better off than one deprived from this natural learning opportunity.


[1] e.g. Pellis,S., & Pellis, V. (2011).  Rough and tumble play: Training and using the social brain.  In A. D. Pelligrini (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of the development of play, 245-259. Oxford University Press.

[2]Risky Play: Why Children Love It and Need It

This Article is written by our Intern Shazia Ahmad.