How does free play support brain development?

August 20, 2021 • 6 min read

By: Dr. Cindy Hovington, PhD

Pok Pok Playroom is entirely designed around free play.

Play has evolved over the years, and whether we like it or not, it will continue to evolve as technology is further integrated into young children’s lives. When children are younger than two years of age, they are still too young to effectively learn using screen time or digital play such as apps. However, around the age of two or three, parents can begin to include digital play as part of their child’s play diet.

In this piece, we’ll explore the types of play known to support brain development in the preschool years and discuss how digital play can be integrated in a safe, healthy and mindful way.

What is free play?

Free play (also known as open-ended or self-directed play) is the most important type of play in a child’s life. During free play, a child takes control and is driven by what motivates them. Unfortunately, children are not getting as much free play as they used to (Aras. Early Child Development and Care. 2016.), as play time is being taken over by structured and semi-structured play (extra-curricular activities and preschool curriculums focused on academic skills).

Free play can entail anything, like mixing different toys and objects together.

Given that most apps for children have a specific goal, digital play can often fall within structured play as well. Free play includes object play, outdoor play, rough and tumble play and risky play — all guided by the child’s motivation and interests. Before we look into how free play works in a digital space, let’s first have a look at how free play supports cognitive development.

How does free play support cognitive development?

Playing with seemingly random objects is a type of “free play” known as object play, where a child is driven by their curiosity. For instance, when a baby grabs items from around the home and places it in their mouth, they are playing and their brain is learning — this experimentation continues as children continue to learn and grow. Let’s break this action down for a better understanding of how free play supports cognitive development:

  1. Attention: Baby Jake is playing with their toys but sees a mop leaning against the wall. Jake questions what this “new object” is. He’s never seen this one before! Jake activated his brain’s attentional networks to shift his attention from his own toys to the mop.
  2. Curiosity and goal-directed behaviour: Jake is now crawling towards the mop because he is curious about this new object in his environment and his brain has created a goal, “find out what this thing is”. If we pull Jake away from the mop, he will most probably keep trying to get to it! His goal needs to be met.
  3. Sensory exploration: Children use their senses to explore and learn about their environment. Jake will touch the mop, put it in his mouth, he might bang it on the floor to see what happens and if it makes an interesting sound, he will bang it again.
  4. Schematic play and problem-solving: In addition to using his senses, he will repeat certain behaviours with the mop (smashing it, pushing it, hiding it etc) in order to develop some ideas and thoughts about the object and its environment.
  5. Reward and motivation: Jake loved the mop! He achieved his goal and his brain is happy. The next time he sees the mop, his brain will release dopamine in anticipation of feeling reward from playing with the mop again. This will motivate him to go play with it again.

The science behind free play and cognitive development

Play has been shown to have both direct and indirect effects on brain structure and functioning, however most of the knowledge we have on this topic stems from rat studies (Yogman et al. Pediatrics 2018). When rat pups are deprived of play by isolating them in separate cages from their peers and removing objects they can play with, they can become less competent in problem-solving (such as navigating mazes) and less socially-active. One of the most important qualities of free play is that it encourages curiosity.

During states of curiosity, the parts of the brain that are involved with intrinsic motivation and learning are activated — the nucleus accumbens, midbrain and hippocampus (Yogman et al. Pediatrics 2018). This type of self-directed, open-ended play enhances cognitive skills like executive functions, which help support the development of memory, planning and regulating emotions.

When children experiment during play, they’re developing key parts of their brains.

Can apps support free play?

A study by Jackie Marsh and colleagues highlights that the nature of play in this digital age is having an impact on the resources that are available for play (Early Years. 2016). In the study, they found that contemporary digital cultures in fact provide rich opportunities for the promotion of play. Marsh also adapted Bob Hughes’ taxonomy of play to fit it into digital play, and the fundamentals remain the same — digital, free play should include exploratory play, creative play and role play.

  • Exploratory play is when children explore objects and spaces through the senses in order to find out information and explore possibilities within them.
  • Creative play enables children to explore, develop ideas, make things, and think outside of the box.
  • Role play encourages children to take on a role beyond the personal or domestic roles associated with socio-dramatic play.

Many apps claim to be “educational”, however, Hirsh-Pasek et al. (Psychological Science in the Public Interest 2015) reminds us that these apps are largely unregulated and untested. Thus suggests that it is the responsibility of the parent to evaluate the educational aspects of the app, which can be a daunting task. Below are some criteria that I’ve put together to help families select apps for children that are educational in nature:

  1. Clarity and simplicity of goals: Are the goals developmentally appropriate for your child?
  2. Quality and feedback of rewards: Research suggests that it is best to reward success with casual rich information (e.g. your character receives new skills in an app rather than seeing confetti, hearing a “ding” or being told “great job” for completing something).
  3. Structure of challenge: Does the app use scaffolding for wrong answers or do they simply give you the right answer? Scaffolding is when we offer children some guidance to get to the final answer. Learning occurs when a child figures out the answer for themselves rather rather than being given the answer.
  4. Advertising: Look for apps with limited or no advertising. Over 95% of “educational apps” have ads in them, and these have been shown to disrupt play and the educational goal.
  5. Allows for interactions with others: Apps that offer parallel interactions (or side-by side-play) where the parent and child take turns playing transfers an important social aspect of play from the real world to the digital world (Hiniker et al. CHI 2018).
Pok Pok Playroom’s Town toy includes exploratory play, creative play and role play.

One of the most important things to consider when children are playing is whether or not they’re engaging in open-ended play. Regardless of if the experience exists in a physical space at home or in a digital space, if the play is open-ended and self-guided, kids are learning.

Even though it may feel strange to open up an app like Pok Pok Playroom to find no language, no instructions and no levels, it’s truly got everything that developing preschool brains need — opportunities to play however they want to. It’s completely up to them, and that’s the whole point!

Dr. Cindy Hovington is a neuroscientist, mother of three and founder of Curious Neuron. She earned her PhD in Neuroscience from McGill University and specializes in neuroscience and education. She provides bite-sized, scientific-backed parenting advice with a neuroscience spin over on Instagram and hosts the Curious Neuron podcast. You can follow her at @curious_neuron.