About play: traditional accounts

Traditional and dominant ways of understanding the benefits of play focus on its relationship to children’s cognitive, physical, social and emotional development. Research has shown positive correlations between play and:

  • a range of cognitive skills (for example, paying attention, concentrating, constructing knowledge, making sense, communicating ideas, creativity, imagination, flexibility, divergent thinking, problem solving);

  • dispositions and mood states (for example, curiosity and an openness to learning, enthusiasm, persistence, interdependence, resilience and self-efficacy);

  • social skills (for example, relationships with peers and adults, emotion regulation, reciprocity, emotional well-being) and motor skills (for example, fine and gross motor skills, proprioception, co-ordination, spatial awareness, confidence, physical health and well-being).[1]


In addition,

  • children’s playground games contribute significantly to the development of peer relations and networks, linguistic skills, adaptive skills, physical skills and more;[2]  

  • school play times offer the opportunity for children to engage in physical activity (especially if outside space is available), countering excessive inactivity and obesity, and this can be significantly enhanced through design features, cultural shifts and other interventions;[3]

  • children’s ability to concentrate improves after play times, implying that removing breaks in order to focus on academic work may be counterproductive, particularly for children who have difficulty concentrating and therefore may be disruptive.[4]


The experimental and longitudinal data … provide strong support for the role of recess in the primary school curriculum … Unstructured breaks from demanding cognitive tasks seem to facilitate school learning, as well as more general social competence and adjustment to school.[5]

We can also think differently about play

[1] Wood, E. and Attfield, J. (2005) Play, Learning and the Early Childhood Curriculum, Paul Chapman.

[2] Baines, E. and Blatchford, P. (2011) ‘Children's Games and Playground Activities in School and their Role in Development’, in Pelligrini, A. (ed) The Oxford Handbook of the Development of Play, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[3] See, for example, Hyndman, B.P., Benson, A.C., Ullah, S. and Telford, A. (2014) ‘Evaluating the Effects of the Lunchtime Enjoyment Activity and Play (LEAP) School Playground Intervention on Children’s Quality of

Life, Enjoyment and Participation in Physical Activity’, BMC Public Health, 14, available at https://bmcpublichealth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1471-2458-14-164.

[4] Jarrett, O. (2013) A Research-based Case for Recess, US Play Coalition, available at http://usplaycoalition.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/13.11.5_Recess_final_online.pdf.

[5] Pellegrini, A. and Bohn, C. M. (2005) ‘The Role of Recess in Children’s Cognitive Performance and School Adjustment’, Educational Researcher, available at https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/1521/c046d6433f0bc992f0259ac58d6f5ca80133.pdf.