Play Develops High-level Thinking Skills


By Debra Liu, Director of Pedagogy, China.

Before children learn to talk, they experience the world through touch. By touching and playing, children begin to learn about the world around them. As they grow, they begin to include vocabulary to that understanding about the world – in touching something hot and hearing the word “hot”, they are developing “the vocabulary of things”. Friedrich Froebel, who first developed kindergartens for young children in Germany in the 1800s (and often referred to as ‘the father of the kindergarten movement’) put it this way,

“Children must master the language of things before they master the language of words.”

In the 21st Century, we know a lot more about young children’s development, and how the human brain works, than Mr. Froebel did in the 19th Century. Yet this new knowledge – brought to us by scientists who research into the function and abilities of the brain- concurs with Froebel’s thinking.

The term ‘windows of opportunities’ was coined to signify the moments when children have the ability to discover and develop logical thought, and these moments occur when children are very focused on play. Play, researchers have found, actually increases brain activity, fires the neurons, and begins the process of keying the brain into learning mode.

“The primary task of the brain during early childhood is to connect brain cells,” explains Pam Shiller (Shiller,2010).

In a fifteen-year research project, Cabrera and Cotosi (2010) concluded that inquiry-based learning, alongside hands-on activities, contributes to developing abstract thinking, increasing critical thinking skills that are essential to learning and organizing systems and taking multiple perspectives. All of these skills are higher-level thinking skills developed when children engage in hands-on inquiry and play.

Whilst all research on the early years supports the importance of play activities in young children’s learning, there is also a trend moving away from this play-based learning. Some suggest that formal learning – reciting letters and numbers, even words – should start at pre-school.

Water play_resized

Photo courtesy of Islander Pre-School, Singapore 

Dr. David Elkins says, “If there is no solid research demonstrating that early academic training is superior to the more traditional, hands-on model of early education, why take the risky step of engaging in formal academic training of the young? When we know what is good for young children, why do we persist in miseducation then, putting them at risk for no purpose?”

He maintains it is a political and economic motivation supported “by parents [who are] anxious to give their children an edge in what they regard as an increasingly competitive and global economy”.

Sadly, this pressure on formal learning for children who are not developmentally ready can cause children to dislike school and have potential lasting effects on their desire to learn and thus their actual results in primary and secondary school.

To truly give children a head start to learning, we must allow them the opportunity to experience, play, inquire and make their own discovering and conclusions. In this way, we are truly supporting their lifelong learning.


  1. Cabrera, D., & Cotosi, L., “The World at our Fingertips.” Scientific Mind, 2010.
  2. Elkin, David, The Hurried Child, Perseus Publishing, New Baskerville, 2001.
  3. Froebel, Friedrich, Pedagogics of the Kindergarten, 1895.
  4. Schiller, Pam, Early Brain Development Research and Update, Brain Development Exchange, 2011.

This page was last edited on March 31, 2016