How Does Play Help Children’s Intellectual Development? Everything You Need to Know!

image of child playing with building blocks

Play is known to influence all areas of a child’s development positively. 

But how?

Keep reading to find out how play impacts your child’s intellectual growth and what types of play cultivate the different skills associated with cognitive development.

What is childhood cognitive development?

Cognitive development in children is the maturation and expansion of their brain function. It impacts how they think, their emotional processing, and how they interact with the world around them.

The psychologist Piaget outlined four main stages of cognitive development in childhood. We’ve summarised them below:

  • Sensorimotor motor stage (0-2 years)
    The first stage of a child’s cognitive development is the sensorimotor stage. Children primarily learn about their surroundings during this period through motor activity and the use of their senses.
  • Preoperational stage (2–7 years)
    During the second stage of development, children learn how to use symbols and start exploring symbolic play. But, Piaget observed that they had not yet grasped concrete logic and were not able to understand the perspective of others entirely.
  • Concrete operational stage (7–11 years)
    This third stage of intellectual development fosters the development of logical thinking, which is followed by children developing their social abilities and forming a desire to be accepted by the group and connect with peers.
  • Formal operational stage (11 years – adulthood)
    Abstract concepts become interesting and engaging during this final stage of development, where children gain the ability to understand hypotheticals and reason logically.

9 benefits of play for intellectual development

The various forms of play that children engage in all significantly impact their cognitive brain development. This in turn affects many aspects of their lives, from critical thinking and sharing skills to memory development and spacial awareness.

Below we’ve outlined 9 key benefits of imaginative play that can positively impact development. 

1 – Enriches language skills and communication

Play encourages interaction and interaction facilitates language development. Through play, children learn to ask their friends to join them in a game or ask for help if needed. 

When engaging in play with your child, it is important to interact with them verbally and ask questions about what they’re doing.

Free play is a great way to encourage organic interaction and communication amongst children, which will not only improve their language abilities but improve their social skills too.

2 – Develops critical thinking skills

Free play is a fantastic way to help your children develop their critical thinking skills. It encourages them to ask questions about their surroundings and create their own rules as they experiment with different types of play like sensory play.

3 – Promotes problem-solving

Solving problems is a big aspect of many types of play. A child can learn how to stack blocks without them tumbling over by using their analytical skills developed through trial and error. Physical play, especially mazes or creative climbing structures, promotes problem-solving.

4 – Heightens spacial awareness

Children develop spacial awareness through active play, as they learn how their bodies move in relation to those around them. Children can learn that bumping into someone or trying to fit a dolls pram in a space that’s too small can impact themselves and their surroundings.

5 – Improves memory

Physical exercise through active play can activate the hippocampus, which is the brain’s centre for learning and memory. Outdoor play improves physical health while also fostering the healthy development of memory through repeated activities.

If a child is struggling with information retention, memory games and other focused activities can improve their memory and attentiveness.

6 – Increases imagination and creativity

Pretend play allows children to use their imagination to invent scenarios and stories. This form of play enhances children’s cognitive abilities, as they need to organise their ideas while finding solutions when facing various challenges.

Through imaginative play, a child learns that other children may see the world differently from them, which assists in developing their social skills and logic.

7 – Fosters interest in exploration

Children’s play stimulates their learning brain and creates a desire to explore. Exploration leads to the healthy development of the brain and establishes an innate inquisitiveness in the child, which positively affects their learning abilities throughout life.

8 – Cultivates independence

An important aspect of child development and one of the benefits of play is the cultivation of independence. Independent play can increase a child’s confidence, which has a positive impact on their mental health.

When engaging in independent play, a child is given the space to figure things out for themselves without being told which is the right or wrong way to do something. This improves self-esteem and increases emotional development.

9 – Introduces the concept of sharing

Sharing is a difficult concept for young children to master. When children play games with each other, sharing often plays an important role. In the early years, this can result in conflict. However, as children learn to share, they learn self-discipline and how to self-regulate.

When children learn to share, their emotional skills improve, allowing them to understand their peers better. This improves communication and increases positive play experiences.

Types of play and their influence on childhood cognitive development


Play that involves singing and musical instruments can improve memory, pattern recognition, and the identification of cause and effect.


Creative play motivates children to experiment and teaches them a wide range of skills that will later influence their understanding of mathematics, science, and language. Art is known to play a vital role in developing learning abilities. Art’s physical activity also helps develop the child’s fine motor skills.

Imaginative play

When children play imaginative games with each other, they explore new concepts while developing improved communication skills and learning to share. This form of play fosters creativity and increases cognitive function.

This can always be initiated with props and toys, like an interactive doll or dress-up clothes. 


When observing how children play with blocks, you’ll see them figuring out how balance works, which blocks can be stacked on top of each other and which blocks cannot, and you’ll observe them challenging themselves – how tall can they make the tower?

Playing with blocks also reinforces memory, as kids learn through repetition. The more they play with blocks, the more they begin to understand space, measurements, and construction, which they will need to remember to repeat their play successfully.


Sensory play allows children to learn about basic scientific concepts, such as the interaction of various substances with water, and explore the various senses through interacting with various textiles, tastes, and colours.

Sensory tables also encourage children to develop their reasoning skills and create hypotheses. Mathematical concepts can be learned by introducing measuring instruments, such as quantity, size, addition and subtraction.

Physical Play

Physical activity plays a vital role in the development of gross motor skills. It also fosters independence and increases spacial awareness.


How is play beneficial for cognitive development?

Play involves problem-solving, creativity, trial and error, experimentation, and physical activities. These all have a big impact on your child’s development at a cognitive level. 

Incorporating different forms of play into your child’s life will improve their emotional, mental, and physical well-being, brain function and intellectual growth.

What factors affect cognitive development?

Three major factors influence cognitive development in young children – nutrition, environment and parent-child interaction. If a child is not receiving the correct food or nutrition, their brain function will be impaired, they will struggle to learn, and their physical well-being will be compromised.

The next factor is their environment. If the child is in a stressful environment, their propensity for learning and absorbing information will be negatively impacted. The same applies to an environment that is lacking in stimulation.

Lastly, parent-child interaction is vital for a child to develop good cognitive function. If a child experiences neglect, they are prevented from developing their language abilities, social skills, and many other important factors.

Help your kids develop and play with Play Like Mum

Free play and using imagination are critical to the intellectual development of children. 

At Play Like Mum, we have a great selection of doll prams and pushchairs which can help to initiate imaginative play and aid your child’s intellectual, emotional and social development. Shop our collection today to find your child’s new favourite toy. From dolls carriage prams to twin doll strollers, Play Like Mum offers plenty of fun toys to aid your child’s intellectual development.