What is Play?

Play is an activity that is chosen by the child and is also directed by the child. There is an intrinsic motivation to engage in this activity and it is also guided by mental rules whilst being imaginative and creative at the same time. It is an active state of mind, however, it is not stressful for the child. 

Play is also important for the child’s development and it is appropriate according to the child’s current abilities or the next set of tasks that the child is ready to learn. 

What happens during Play?

During play, there is a lot of activity happening in the brain. Different areas of the brain are being stimulated and the following happens:

  • Increased dopamine levels, which makes us feel good and also improves memory, attention, creativity and motivation. When we experience something positive that helps us feel happy and joyful, our brains produce a chemical called dopamine that helps us feel pleasure and rewards. This neurotransmitter initiates interactions between different parts of the brain so that we can respond to and act in ways to gain a reward. Some behaviours would be paying more attention, engaging our working memory, stress regulation, being more creative and improving learning.
  • During play, children are trying to make sense of what they have in front of them, and on many occasions, they are faced with new things. When this happens, the brain compares networks with a familiar experience to this new experience and knowledge is transferred and new understanding is gained. Here the brain is involved in analogical thinking, memory, transfer of knowledge, insight and metacognition. Neural networks are thus being linked or developed further.
  • There is an increase in brain activation related to agency, decision making and flow. When being fully engaged in an activity, brain networks that are responsible for paying attention and remembering things are involved and this enhances learning.
  • When playing, children will be faced with problems to solve or challenges to complete. This helps children become persevering and to think more flexibly in order to find a solution. When children become able to take on different perspectives, their sense of agency or ability in achieving something increases, and they are also able to think more abstractly and make important judgments. 
  • Play is a social exercise where children are interacting with peers or adults. This is the basis to form positive and healthy relationships, for children to regulate their emotions and to deal with stress. When a child experiences positive relationships, their brain is better able to take on new challenges and develop skills such as language, social, cooperation and self-regulation. 
  • When playing, children are also gaining skills related to the particular aspects of a game; the physical aspect of play involves motor skills, dexterity, balance, coordination and strength. A sense of self, boundaries, communication, conflict resolution, attachment and relationship building in the aspect of the social and emotional context. With regards to intellectual and cognitive games, one would also be investing in the imaginative, numeracy and literacy skills, together with problem-solving and decision-making skills that were previously mentioned. 

If you think that you can benefit from professional support on this issue you can reach out here.

Abigail Church is a Humanistic Integrative Counsellor who works with adults and children through counselling with Willingness. She can be contacted on abigail@willingness.com.mt or call us on 79291817. 


National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. (2008/2012). Establishing a Level Foundation for Life: Mental Health Begins in Early Childhood: Working Paper 6. Updated Edition. Available at: http://www.developingchild.harvard.edu (Accessed: 30/08/2022)

Zosh, J. M., Hopkins, E. J., Jensen, H., Liu, C., Neale, D., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Solis, S. L., & Whitebread, D. (2017). Learning through play: a review of the evidence (white paper). The LEGO Foundation, DK.

Why Play is Important (2022). Raising Children. Retrieved from https://raisingchildren.net.au/newborns/play-learning/play-ideas/why-play-is-important on 13th January 2023.

Playing with Your Child (n.d.). Child Development Institute. Retrieved from  https://childdevelopmentinfo.com/child-development/play-work-of-children/pl5/ on 13th January 2023.