Play Research

Play is the highest form of research - Albert Einstein

The Basis of Play

So, what is play?

Play has been described in many different ways but the common characteristics include:

  • Pleasurable-play is an enjoyable and pleasurable activity. Play sometimes includes frustrations, challenges and fears; however enjoyment is a key feature
  • Symbolic-play is often pretend, it has a ‘what if?’ quality. The play has meaning to the player that is often not evident to the educator
  • Active-play requires action, either physical, verbal or mental engagement with materials, people, ideas or the environment
  • Voluntary-play is freely chosen. However, players can also be invited or prompted to play
  • Process oriented-play is a means unto itself and players may not have an end or goal in sight
  • Self motivating-play is considered its own reward to the player

From Shipley, ”Empowering Childen: Play-based curriculum for Lifelong Learning” 2008


Play based learning is described in the Australian Early Years Learning Framework as  ‘a context for learning through which children organise and make sense of their social worlds, as they actively engage with people, objects and representations’.

What does this mean?

In essence, play is very important to a growing mind. Whilst it may seem like a fun, harmless activity, to children, play helps them learn, develop and grow. It assists in language development, memory skills, behaviour regulation, social adjustment, negotiation skills, risk assessment, the list goes on….

What I think a lot of parents miss however, is that unstructured play is considered the best type of play for young children. It allows use of the imagination, exploration skills and creativity.

There are many resources available online if you are interested in reading more. My favourites include:

·      Early Childhood Australia:

·      The Raising Children Network:

So stress less mama and stop enrolling your child in every class there is known to human. Help guide them and provide incidental learning along the way by asking probing questions and provide guidance, but let them choose their own adventure, inside and outside the home.

Play Research

Here are some of my favourite pieces of play-based research below.

The effect of number of toys

Researchers at the University of Toledo recently completed a study on the influence of the number of toys in the environment on toddlers’ play and particularly the hypothesis that an environment with fewer toys lead to higher quality of play for toddlers. In the study 36 pre-schoolers were observed in two different individual free play conditions; one with 16 toys, and the other with 4 toys.
This suggests that when provided with fewer toys in the environment, toddlers engage in longer periods of play with a single toy, allowing better focus to explore and play more creatively.
The study found that when children were faced with fewer toys, this lead to a higher quality of play for the toddlers. Specifically, toddlers engaged in longer periods of play with a single toy, allowing better focus to explore and play more creatively (i.e. they played with toys in a greater variety of ways). 
The link to the full journal article can be found here.

Benefits of risk-based play

Over the last decade, the increasing presence of hover-parenting has become a topic of hot discussion. However, there are many pieces of research that demonstrate the importance of risk-based play in the early childhood years to develop childrens' ability to perceive and evaluate risk. 

One such piece of research is documented here.

We also love this TED talk on the benefits of risky play for girls here.

Benefits of unstructured play

Did you know that unstructured play is critical in a child’s brain development? In an interview conducted with NPR Ed, Dr Sergio Pellis notes that "The experience of play changes the connections of the neurons at the front end of your brain. But to produce this sort of brain development, children need to engage in plenty of so-called free play. No coaches, no umpires, no rule books".

Full interview details can be found here.