The benefits of play for your children

Written by Cam Lee

5 August, 2020

Self-directed Play is vital for learning and development

 A shallow dive into a deep pool of the evolution of Play and what its for.

What are the benefits of Play for your children?

Free-Play is vital and it does have an integrated relationship with both development and learning but instead of just listing the ways, like Roger Rabbit “counting the ways I love thee”, I’d rather dig a bit deeper into the nature of Play and development. In the mean-time let’s just park our understandings of the words “Play” and “learning” and strap in while we go back to the beginning

…or even further than the beginning,

maybe to the beginning of the beginning.

Picture, if you will, a very fictitious and stylised warm puddle of primordial soup, half shadowed by a rock and filled with Disney-like single-cell bacteria. Maybe they’re singing a song about the birth of ‘Play’ or some such thing.

Imagine these happy little chaps living their best lives, some are just content to be chillin’ in their beautifully warm habitat, while others are moving around checking out the place, opening draws and testing the beds like a 7-year-old in a new caravan – bouncing off the walls to see what happens.

Imagine that this second group, during their adventures, discover that the temperature is cooler in the shade of the rock. They go under and back a few times to make sure there’s a consistent pattern that supports their discovery, then they start seeing how fast they can get from the warm to the cool, they build strength with each movement and develop their sense of direction each time they race from a different part of the pool. What do they do this for? I dunno’, they just do. They’re just like that, they take joy in autotelic activities, in doing things for their own ends, rather than as a means.

You can bet that the other bacteria, content to just sit in their warm bath, think these wriggling, obnoxious, ADHd charged, little irritants should just relax.

That is, until the puddle actually heats up…

And those that survive the change in climate will be the wriggling, bouncing, charging ones who knew where the cooler part of the pool was and had the strength to get there. Why did they engage in this bouncy behaviour?… I’ve still no idea but it certainly worked for them didn’t it!

These wriggling, bouncing, boisterous survivors then ‘begat’ the next generation, and so on.. Evolution, right?

The next generation of bacteria may not have known, or even needed to know, where the coolest part of the pool was, or what relationship the rock had to the pool’s temperature, or how to strengthen their swimming but they did have a deep inherited urge to check the place out –  joyfully opening draws, testing the beds and bouncing off the walls, just like their parents did.

This new generation may even have found that part of their bouncing, boisterousness included copying the generation previous and they may have discovered the cool of  the rock’s shadow that much faster as a result. Regardless, they soon discover the things they needed to know about the pool, or the savanna, or indeed the playground, by employing this same urge to experimentally interact with the world around them.

Sure its important that they know how to get to safety and even the nature of what makes the rock’s shadow safe but this is different to that initial urge to widely experiment, that is so all-encompassing that it engaged every possibility in that pool, in order to turn up the specifically required skills and abilities that lead to the bacteria cell’s survival..

It isn’t the gamification or ‘joyful training’ of swimming or shadow studies. Developing this type of knowledge and skill is important for living in the pool but it’s the deeper adventurous, experimental behaviour that has helped open the possibilities and helped the bacteria discover that swimming and rock shadows are important. You could say that the Play behaviour lead to the finding and developing of the skills, ALL the skills. What did they do it for? I dunno’ but it worked didn’t it!

Over time… actually a great deal of time in this first evolutionary move but more on that elsewhere, our happy little bacteria finally broke free of the pool and crawled out of the soup, suddenly finding themselves in a big wide world of variance, change and diversity. This new world required that they know a lot of stuff! Big brains would need to be grown in order to store it all safely. Their survival depended on it. Big brains weren’t something organisms are born with however so something would need to be done so that all this new information could be easily captured and stored. It was nolonger just a matter of swimming to the cool part of the pool, now there was a whole world full of things to know. If, as a part of evolution, a larger brain becomes the outcome of natural selection but a fully developed brain will not fit through a mother’s birth canal, then nature’s answer may well have been to create potential for growth and behaviour to support that growth… see where this is headed?


Now fast forward a few thousand years. Our community of happy little bacteria have split off to the sea, the sky, some walk on four legs and others, still maintaining this Playful behaviour, have evolved into homo sapiens.

Their warm primordial pool has now expanded both outward past the stars into the universe and inward through language, to their very souls. They spend time considering the universe and their existence, the predictability yet uncertainty of their environment, physical and emotional sensations, the patterns, dynamics and relationships of objects and society, identity, perception, other-ness and yet belonging. What for? I dunno’ but now if they don’t spend time in moments of this experimental, Playful behaviour they develop subtle differences, they are stunted, can’t interact or express themselves as fully, aren’t able to balance or judge distance as well as others. In some situations it becomes a nuance of who they are and how they see themselves, almost imperceptible in some cases, in others quite obvious and debilitating. 


Image: “tumblr_nf89vddT1S1tlppcdo1_400”

Found at:  httpswww.zmescience.commedicinegifs-biology-human-body

These same experimental, Playful, unpredictable and irrepressible behaviours that helped the bacteria find shelter in the shadow of the rock have now evolved into a range of deeply fulfilling behaviours that are characterised by being freely chosen and self-directed, the experience of which is vital to the seamlessly integrated development of thinking, pattern and relationship recognition, social interaction, muscle development and… well, everything.

We can say that children naturally Play for Play’s sake. That Play can be characterised by flexibility, engagement, repetition, imagined scenarios and the embrace of possibility and experimentation, among other things. You might also say that it enables optimum psychological and physical development for the individual who is engaged in Play. You might also consider one of the very many contradictions of Teaching, is that students don’t learn because we teach, they don’t necessarily learn what we teach but rather they bounce around, in their own way, putting things toegether for themselves, building on what they already know, growing their understanding, just like those first bacteria did in that primordial soup, albeit in a more sophisticated manner.

This is why educators such as myself have developed such an interest in this lawless, primeval, unpredictable and sometimes destructive and risky, yet deeply fulfilling human urge. It’s why I have spent much of my professional life endeavouring to provoke Play in different ways and in the presence of different materials and skills, because it is vital for optimum learning and development of everything, for each individual.

Featured Image: ‘Nameless child playing house & kitchen’. Playful Endeavour 2019


‘Evolutionary Playwork’  by Bob Hughes (2001) – Yes, this is what inspired the pool story. Its been a while since I read it but it left an impression. Thanks Bob.

‘Play Anything’ by Ian Bogost (2016) – I think Ian missed decades of research coming out of The UK, of which Bob is a key part, it was a fun read and brought up a few interesting points.

Further Reading:

‘Free to Learn’ by Peter Gray (2013) – Why? because it’s a great read and looks at learning in hunter gatherer communities.

‘Animal Play: Evolutionary, Comparative and Ecological Perspectives’ by Marc Bekoff, John A. Byers – Almost the last word on play in the animal kingdom