Understanding the Connection Between Active Play and Cognitive Development in Children

credits: Yan Krukau

Play is a necessity for a child’s mental development and creativity. Child psychology proved the link between the active play and the cognitive development. Parenthood is not a walk in the park. With ongoing summer vacations, it is a handful for any parent. While working parents may end up exhausted, kids end up sticking to either screens or boredom. Studies indicate that children need appropriate environments for different types of play. In the current world of concrete and crowded places, it is difficult for children to find their place to play. This article deals with the concepts of active play and cognitive development in children.

Active Play

Play is the universal language of children. It helps children interact, comprehend, and grasp the world around them. As per “The Psychology of Play” by Susana Millar, 1968, play is an intentional mental or physical activity carried out alone or in a group in leisure time or at work for enjoyment, relaxation, or fulfillment of immediate or long-term needs.

What is Active play?

Active play involves the participation of a child in the play instead of observing the play passively. It involves physical activities from simple to rigorous motor movements.

Connection between the play and brain

The development of motor, social, and cognitive skills starts from the early and mid-childhood up to 12 years. Late childhood, also known as adolescence, is 10-12 years. Late childhood is the phase of intense brain development and maturation. It is a period of dynamic development of motor and cognitive functions, especially executive ones. Executive functions involve taking action through proper planning and curbing or postponing another reaction. Brain plasticity also prevails, giving rise to sensitivity to stress and toxicity of the environment.

Lack of active play during late childhood results in limited perception and developmental disorders. It leads to many physical health issues in motor, immunologic, cardiovascular, hormonal, respiratory, and nervous systems.

Stages of play

Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget classified play into four stages based on the progressive cognitive development of children.

1. Functional play :

Functional play is a repetitive action that brings joy to a baby.

A baby engages in functional play during the cognitive stage of the sensorimotor period. The age lies between zero and two years.

This play is seen in the higher cognitive periods, where simple and repetitive actions become more complex and coordinated. Building blocks is a constructive play in which repetitive stacking of blocks is considered a functional play.


  • Repetitive actions like shaking rattles
  • Squeezing ducks
  • Squishing the soft toys
  • Dropping the accessories.

2. Constructive play :

Constructive play is an act of building or creating something by controlling or manipulating the objects around them.

Children progressing into the preoperational stage of 2 to 7 years old engage in constructive play.

Schools and parents must foster children’s profound mental development and creativity by providing age-appropriate and creative toys or materials.

Children develop their

  • conceptual knowledge through experimentation of what they possess physically and mentally
  • imagination, problem-solving, and fine motor skills forming the basis for social and academic success
  • self-esteem gained through a sense of accomplishment by employing age-appropriate objects like toys, and sports accessories.


  • Building toys – Lego houses, building towers, wooden block towers, and building pipes.
  • Assembling toys – sports cars, warplanes, and bikes, modeling clay items like vases, houses, and castles, and solving puzzles.

3. Symbolic or fantasy play :

Symbolic or fantasy play is an act of engaging in role-play or imaginary scenarios or make-believe situations. Children use ideas, objects, or actions to represent other ideas, objects, or actions.

Children in the preoperational stage also enjoy symbolic play. 

Symbolic play is the most sophisticated play activity among kids. It is said to form new neural pathways, thereby critical to cognitive development. 

Children assign each other different roles in group roleplays.

Child psychology states that this play leads to the intense development of

  • Social skills
    • Negotiation, sharing feelings and ideas, communication, mutual understanding, cooperation, taking turns, listening
  • Early literacy concepts
    • Concepts of symbols, sequences, and syntaxes
  • Academic abilities
    • Learning through creativity and self-created imaginary concepts
  • Behavioral self-regulation
    • Understanding our values and social values, and drifting away from egocentric nature


  • Children pretending to be superheroes, princes, and princesses
  • playing their favorite scenes from the movies or stories
  • Roleplaying using toys like dollhouse, carpenter set, kitchen set, doctor kit, and so on where they enact real-life scenarios.

4. Games with rules :

Games with rules is a play characterized by order and logic. This play imposes rules on its players.

Children entering the concrete operational stage of 7 to 11 years of age engage in games with rules.

As they mature, they mold the games with their own rules. They learn the significance of structured activities, conflict resolution, and abiding by rules and regulations.

This type of play fosters the development of

  • Logical thinking
  • Strategic planning skills
  • Social and cooperation skills
  • Organizational skills


  • Active plays like Lagori, Kho kho, hide and seek, musical chairs, the game of tag, cricket, tennis, and so on.
  • Board and card games like Snake and Ladder, Ludo, Carrom board, and Uno.
  • Strategic games like Chess, Business
  • Electronic games like Township, zoo keeping.

Cognitive development

Cognitive development is the process through which a person perceives, interprets, and gathers knowledge of the world around him in relation to their genetic and learning factors.

Piaget studied the significance of play in the cognitive development of children. Children get to know the world through play. The toys, sports, accessories, role-plays, active plays, and imaginary worlds contribute to their cognitive development. As mentioned above, different types of play introduce and nurture different skills in children as they grow. They can get creative and adjust themselves to the environment by employing plays.


According to Piaget, cognitive development progresses in stages in four periods. Every period is progressive with the retained information from the previous progress. A balance during a period imbalances as it progresses into the next stage, then regains a new balance.

Sensory period :

Zero to two years of age is considered the sensory period. It is the period during which the baby functions through the senses. The initiation of thought starts in this stage. 

A baby’s body is considered its first toy. Grasping and sucking are said to be the base of all the behaviors a baby is born with. It gets to know itself. Basic abilities of cognitive development include closing and opening hands, reaching out to objects, picking them up, and throwing them away. The mother is the closest playmate a baby can have during the sensory period. Hence, she must provide healthy stimuli.

Pre-procedure period :

A pre-procedure period is the period of 2 to 7 years of age. During this period, the toddler experiences intense ego-centrism. It makes them feel like this world exists because they can see. A kid hiding from the world by closing his eyes is a perfect example of this stage. The emergence of symbolic plays occurs during this phase. Creative thinking takes shape here.

Concrete trading period :

A concrete trading period is the phase of cognitive development covering 7 to 12 years of a child. 

Concrete, Logical, and flexible thinking emerge during this phase. The awareness of others and their thoughts leads to the riddance of ego-centricism.

Language proficiency is well developed. The abstract and intangible concepts of culture, nation, and region are still hard for these kids to understand. They find the interpretation of idioms to be tough.

Abstract processing period :

An abstract processing period starts at 12 in children and goes beyond.

Inductive, deductive, structured, and abstract thinking are part of cognitive development during this stage. The child develops the ability to think on his own. The concept of ideas, ideals, values, and beliefs begins.

Alterations in the brain and thoughts occur in this period. Children develop an interest in social structures, strategic planning, politics, and philosophy during this period.

4 ways highlighting the connection between Active play and Cognitive development in children

As discussed earlier, Piaget’s theory proves the connection between Active play and cognitive development. The following are the four various ways highlighting the connection between active play and cognitive development. The details of how a parent or a caregiver can contribute to a child’s development are included here.

Learning through Active Play

Games are leisure or pleasure-filled activities. Through play, children gain and strengthen new skills in every cognitive development stage in fun-filled ways. Piaget’s theory forms the basis for this. Each stage leads to the development of new skills that can be nurtured by respective play. Children perceive reality based on interpretation and understanding skills developed during these activities. Playing is their first way of communication and learning. Hence, parents and caretakers must provide them with age-appropriate toys, sports, and accessories to foster their cognitive development.

Social Skills, Toys, and Active Play

Active play is a social activity. Interaction with toys develops creativity and mental development. Based on research, complex forms of sociodramatic games result in better social skills, empathy, better imagination, and finer understanding skills. Children who engage in this type of play inculcate self-control and communication skills. They find it easier to greet, introduce, respect each other’s spaces, wait for their turn, obey the rules, participate fairly in play, help each other out, share and solve problems, and so on. Roleplaying games help them better navigate real-life scenarios. Through cooking roleplay, they find it easier to cook in the real world. A house roleplay inculcates family values.

Emotional Cognition, Toys, and Active Play

Emotional cognition is the cognitive ability to know and empathize with others and one’s emotions. Children experience various emotions during play. Fear, jealousy, sadness, distress, happiness, joy, anger, love, and aggression emerge in individual and team plays. They must be encouraged to feel the emotions they go through. Parents and caregivers must be the support systems they can fall back to. They must explain gently and allow their children to assess and accept their emotions. If parents fail to teach, a child psychologist is a better choice. During hospitalization or vaccination, toys always help soothe or distract kids.

Linguistic development, Toys, and Active Play

Language plays a prominent role in a child’s active play and cognitive development, and vice versa. From the moment of birth, infants try to learn language by mimicking the sounds they hear. The language progresses from simple sounds to complex sentences through self-expression and storytelling. Children learn to speak by storing various symbols, objects, and concepts in their memories and retrieving them to reuse accurately and appropriately. During playtime with their mates, they learn complex sentences quickly. To teach a language, the parents should know the language and plays. Parents with activities like oral games, fairy tale time, and lullabies bring forth better linguistic abilities in their children.

Conclusion :

Active play is an act of participating in a physical activity involving motor movements. Cognition is the different mental actions such as learning, interpreting, storing, retrieving, understanding, and processing of the information input from around. Functional play, constructive play, symbolic or fantasy play, and games with rules are the four classifications of active play. Cognitive development is progressive. The four stages of cognitive development are the sensory period, pre-procedure period, concrete trading period, and abstract processing period. Understanding the connection between active play and cognitive development in children lies in understanding the development of skills in every stage of cognitive development. The influence of active play and the respective toys used in each play is evident in the respective skill development. Studies indicate that Toys and sports stimulate cognition abilities in children. Parents should provide their kids with age-appropriate toys based on their cognitive development stage.

Frequently Asked Questions :

1. What is the connection between active play and cognitive development in children?

Children progress through 4 cognitive development stages, as per Piaget’s theory. There are four different plays based on cognitive development stages. The current article shows how skills developed in each stage due to the kid’s participation in the respective play of that period. For example, the functional play of the sensory stage of 0 to 2 years involves a baby’s repetitive actions. Parents can enhance this by providing shaking rattles and squishy toys.

2. What are the four ways to understand the connection between active play and cognitive development in children?

The four ways involve the function of toys and active play in cognitive development. Learning through play, emotional cognition, linguistic skills, and social skills are the four ways to understand the connection between Active play and cognitive development in children.

3. What is Active play?

Active play can be defined as an act of participating in a physical activity involving motor movements.

4. What is cognitive development in children?

Cognitive development is the process where children perceive, interpret, and gather knowledge of their surroundings with respect to their genetic and learning factors.

5. What are the four types of active play?

As per Piaget, functional play, constructive play, symbolic or fantasy play, and games with rules are four classifications of active play.

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