The Purpose of Play


Play takes on many guises. Depending on your perspective it ranges in importance. Seldom do people realise that play has an important role in adulthood. It keeps our brains in shape and functioning at their best capacity. Things such as cooking, sport, puzzles and creative activities are all types of play. For children, play it a vital building block. The first 1000 days of a child’s life are cited as a profound period of learning, laying the foundations for future years to come. Play aids a child’s development in crucial ways. While at play the body is intricately joining neurons, configuring the brain, creating fine and gross motor skills, interpreting emotions and connecting human life to meaning. Play is purposeful. Play is also a wonderful source of joy. Play is part of who we are.

“As long as we are human, we need to play.”

This is Professor Karen Stagnitti’s belief. Karen has dedicated nearly 40 years of her time to working and studying the many and various types of play within ‘play’. Her years are rich with experience. Stagnitti is a wry observer of ‘play’. She has studied the early years over time. She knows that play is still the best we have to understand children .     

“It is essential emotionally for children because it is their language. Children can play out things they can’t use language for.”

When you think about human communication, there is a great deal to learn from body language and facial expression. Much can be said without needing to utter a single word. Babies look to adults for guidance. The face of a parent holds a wealth of information. Ways to play spring from these cues of comfort, happiness, familiarity and curiosity. The first cue to play is encouragement. Encouragement and trust and feeling safe come from a bond of trust.

A bond of trust is referred to as ‘secure attachment’ in academic terminology. Stagnitti said that it is important for a child’s ability to self-regulate and know they are safe, even when things are not going well.

“Sunderland (What every parent needs to know)1 and others, for example Siegel and Bryson2, emphasise responsive parenting as important to building the higher functions in the brain.”

Karen and her colleagues are forever underlining the importance of play, as it can lack the credibility of formal types of education such as literacy or numeracy, and yet letters and numbers are primarily taught through varying types of play in the early years of life. Play gives these forms meaning.

“Conversation is narrative and it is social, and narrative integrates the brain with words and emotions.”

Stagnitti notes that parent’s ears prick up when she tells them why play is so important for literacy and how.

“These skills underpin how children function.”

“Pretend play and literacy is so important- it is the narrative structure, predictive thinking, understanding context- children who begin school with these skills are ready to learn, they have knowledge already.”

“More recent literature links high levels of pretend play with self-regulation – both in behavioural research and brain research. Play integrates the brain and when children play they learn to regulate themselves.”

Stuart Brown, who wrote “Play. How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination, and invigorates the soul” has mused whether our understanding of play is like our understanding of tobacco 50 years ago. Meaning that society has realised that tobacco is bad for our health, and in 50 years’ time, we as a society will realise that play is very good for our health and wellbeing.3

“Play is also problematic because it is dismissed as unimportant. When discussing play, you also have to address the issue that play is important and not a waste of time.”

For a time, Stagnitti thought about using other terms such as ‘developmentally appropriate’ mental health for children and yet she realised that by doing this the opportunities to educate adults about the benefits of play are lost.

A waste of time it is not. Finland places a high priority of play. It is a country that holds play in high regard. Indeed, Finland has one of the top education systems in the world. For every hour of structured learning, the children have 15 minutes of free play, outside. Children do not begin formal education until they are seven years of age, after they have established their foundational structure, their base from which to learn more and expand their thoughts and ideas.

“I think Finland understand children,” said Stagnitti.

They are doing a long-term study on play. Stagnitti has colleagues there and travels there every couple of years or so. They are interested in Stagnitti’s work on play and have included her work in their training.

“The results they have shown that they are on the right track and have made the curriculum developmentally appropriate for children.”

Childhood and parenthood and the life of a carer is complex in the modern world as we juggle a myriad of things and a myriad of expectations- how best to learn, progress. Play benefits both adults and children, keeping the brain active and alert. For children especially, it shapes the brain, together with responsive adults.

“Play integrates the brain, it helps us integrate and understand what we are feeling emotionally, and it also gives us space to think and work out problems.”

A part of this comes down to human enjoyment and the passion part of our brain. We tend to remember things that bring us joy, and we want to repeat it. We want to solve it, or shape it, or fix it.

“True play is emotional engagement and the ability to play. This is integration of the brain and deep learning. If there is no enjoyment a child is not truly playing,” said Karen.

Stagnitti has had an expansive career in the early education field. Her first job was working with children with cerebral palsy, then she went into community health. She has worked as an occupational therapist and went on to do a PhD while working, such was her drive for more understanding about play in her clinical work. She now works at Deakin University. She has learnt that play does not come easily to all children.

“Working with children on the spectrum, they don’t always enjoy it and facilitating the emotional connection to their play is important for play to be meaningful to them.”

It is in this instance that play reveals its abilities to help humans learn and develop.

Stagnitti said that children need to use their hands, they need to connect emotionally, they need a connect. Playing encompasses all of these.

“Physical, interactive play lights up the brain, stimulating a lot more of the brain.”

The four cornerstones of development are lit up during different types of play: social, emotional, physical and intellectual, sometimes all at once. The more that we light up these areas, the more that the body responds and tailors its movements, memory, feelings and behaviours. Technology has its place but during early childhood, it is not the most important thing. The emotional connect, the bond and the trust are the primary foundation. 

When interacting with children, “Parents need to give their full attention and emotional connection- it establishes a whole lot of behaviours,” said Karen.

 “Generally observing, parents tend to be distracted on their phones more- this is certainly new.”

This can create anxiety, both within the parent and within the child.

“Anxiety is an interesting one- this is interesting,” observes Stagnitti.

“Kids who understand play, their anxiety goes down. Anxiety is linked to a decrease in time to play.”

Over scheduling is a new problem that children have in the modern world. Families are busy and therefore the time and freedom to play is reduced- that type of unstructured play is not always available.

“Unstructured play- children find their own meaning. It is downtime, but it is also time for them to think- because play is thinking- structured play is often adult directed and created by the adult.”

On top of this Stagnitti discusses the new pressures placed on parents.

“If you are a new Mum and you read all these online opinions on how to parent children, this can raise doubts in your own ability, so now there is a lot more angst and criticism around parenting.”

“Technology looks important and the assumption is it helps us learn. Technology can be useful, but only if it is understood to be a tool and doesn’t take over a person’s life,” said Stagnitti.

At the root of it, studies show that there needs to be a return to simplicity, a return to what humans are designed to do. Walking on undulating ground to build muscles. Picking up things to use them as tools, acquiring knowledge to help us understand how to do things.

The kind of play spaces conducive to play are ones with ‘things’ to play with. The outside world is full of things that allow children to gather an understanding of the bigger scope of things.  

“Interesting things to climb, open spaces to throw a ball, no traffic, other children, props that suggest different play scenes (eg boats, smaller spaces with benches), access to materials such as leaves sticks, objects etc. Toys are also play materials. All play materials that require manipulation.”

Storytime is also another valuable interaction between children and adults and children often include aspects of story books into their play. Karen said the storytime is: “important as it is quiet, time to think and reflect to consolidate and repeat a book that is loved. Another important play activity is singing. Singing is rhythm and stimulates different parts of the brain.”

Storytime gives children time. Time is something intrinsic to play.

To run across the grass, to smell the fragrance of a flower, to observe a bird flying into a tree, to touch a ball. With time, all senses are energised.

“You need time to think about what to play, how to play and who to play with,” said Stagnitti.

“Children need time to get organised and it is more than just 20 minutes.”

Children need time, to be free and explore. Most profoundly of all children need time to form connections with other humans for support, the sharing of ideas, the gathering of greater information and, for love. 

“I see kids become so much happier when they have learnt how to play. They light up and it is really lovely to see.”

We are in perpetual forward motion in this life, things are always changing around us: the weather, the flora, the clock- yet play is something we should make time for, no matter what our age.

 “I am an optimist and take the view that the brain can be changed so it is worth introducing different play types at any age.”

Play has value. The trick is keeping some playful spirit, long after childhood is gone.

Article by Sinead Halliday


  1. Sunderland, M., 2016. What Every Parent Needs to Know. 2nd ed. United Kingdom: Dorling Kindersley Ltd.

  2. Siegel, D. & Bryson, T. (2012). The whole brain child. New York: Penguin Books.

  3. Vaughan, C. and Brown, S. (2014). Play. How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination, and invigorates the soul. New York: Avery.