importance of play

In recent years, it has been widely accepted that play is fundamental for children during their education and development.  In fact, science and experience have shown us that play is important for children and young people of all ages, as well as having significant benefits for the mental and physical wellbeing of adults.  Play is defined as ‘activity engaged in for enjoyment and recreation, especially by children.[1]’ A quick look at the popularity of sports such as soccer gives us an obvious example of how play enhances our lives.  Yet for the adolescent, whose brain is still developing until their mid 20’s, play is particularly important.   

It is the synapses of the prefrontal cortex, the decision making part of the brain, which are still developing in the adolescent. Scientists talk about ‘synaptic pruning’ happening during teenage years, whereby we lose those synapses used less frequently and build up the synapses used regularly, which is another reason why play is so vital for the growing teenager.  Play is a broad term but it could be grouped into three main categories: 

Social play

This involves young people playing with peers or with adults.  They may, for example, kick a ball around, create informal competitions between themselves or act out TV shows or invented stories.  Some adolescents will form bands, make their own music or form dance groups.       

Independent play

When young people play alone they may, for example, write or tell stories, enjoy crossword puzzles or construct things using tools and materials.  Adolescents often enjoy playing video games or choose to train a pet.  While video gaming has been much maligned as an activity for teens, in moderation it has its value and is a source of play.

Guided play

During guided play, adolescents play within a context set up for them by adults.  The adult may say to them, “We’re going to put on a production using these props. What do you think that our show should be about? How should we start it?”  Other play which teenagers in schools have enjoyed, includes creating governments for imaginary countries and developing board games to review topics from social studies lessons.   

So what are the benefits of play for the adolescent?  Researcher Hilary G. Conklin says that play, ‘fosters creative thinking, problem solving, independence and perseverance but also addresses teenagers[2]’ developmental needs for greater independence and ownership in their learning, opportunities for physical activity and creative expression and the ability to demonstrate competence.[3]’

Play is the beginning of all learning, in all areas of life.   Freely choosing your play as a teenager or child is ‘a testing ground for life…[providing] critical life experiences without which children cannot develop into confident and competent adults.[4]’  Through play young adults develop intellectually, socially, emotionally and physically. 

Intellectual development

Through play teens develop their executive function skills and their creative thinking.  When adolescents build their own go-karts, for example, they are measuring, calculating, creating and testing their own theories and formulae. When adolescents engage in dramatic play, they are building up their linguistic skills, enriching their vocabulary and honing their writing abilities.  Engineering play in particular has been shown to enhance problem-solving and mathematical skills.  It is through play that adolescents discover what interests them and where their competencies or natural abilities lie.  Play improves memory and enhances the decision making skills of an adolescent. 

Social development

Playing with others means expanding the teenager’s flexibility and adaptability within different social settings. Play allows young people to listen to each other and take on another person’s perspective – key qualities to the growth of empathy. Social play also requires teenagers to share their ideas and express feelings while negotiating and reaching compromises.  Adolescents can expand their creative problem solving techniques within such social situations.  This may happen for an individual when spending time with peers or within family gatherings.  Whenever these occasions arise, it is through experimentation of different behaviors that an adolescent develops his or her own personality, communication techniques and preferred place within these groups.

Emotional development

If we believe that play provides the fertile soil for teenagers to mature and flourish, emotional development is perhaps the most crucial aspect of that growth.  Particularly in social and guided play, teenagers learn self-regulation as they follow norms and practice concentration while experiencing feelings such as anticipation, disappointment or frustration. Play also teaches young people how to set and change rules and how to decide when to lead and when to follow.  Surely independent, social and guided play allow opportunities for the adolescent to improve their self-control and self discipline.  Since play is something which the individual chooses to do for themselves, the adolescent will persevere with games on his or her own terms.  Today many adolescents are involved in self initiated business enterprises, such as promoting their youtube videos. This saunter into the adult world of business, while still under the protective umbrella of their parent’s home, can be seen as play. While setting up a business they may face fears about lack of revenue or how to manage their new found income.  Managing this fear and excitement provides a perfect opportunity for emotional development and increases maturity.   

Physical development

 Many teenagers have an abundant, sometimes excessive amount of physical energy, surely one of the joys of youth and something to be celebrated and channeled wisely? Adolescents often choose to play sports, dance or enjoy outdoor pursuits.  Physical wellbeing is crucial for success in other domains of life. In sports and other physical activities, adolescents develop strength, muscle control, coordination, and reflexes. These activities allow young people to push limits and try new things such as racing down a hill or swimming underwater – which can motivate them to take risks in other circumstances.

Conversely of course, studies have shown that a lack of play has a damaging impact on the lives of young people. Our adolescent population today chooses to spend its free time in play far less than earlier generations. At the same time, play as a part of the school curriculum has also declined. Meanwhile, the rates of depression and anxiety amongst our teenage population have greatly increased. Between 2007 and 2012, anxiety disorders (such as depression) in children and teens went up by 20%[5].  This has surely increased further in the past seven years. Alongside this rise in poor mental health, suicide rates have risen four fold in the last 60 years for children younger than 15, and doubled for those aged between 15 and 25[6].  There is undoubtedly a correlation between the lack of play in the lives of young people and these disturbing statistics.  Play for adolescents is that freedom to invent, to create, to bend or construct rules, to enhance the norm or disturb the status quo and then observe the results of their actions.  Play is surely experimentation and having fun purely for its own sake.  For adolescents growing up into young adults, play is a vitally important life enhancement as well as a survival skill.


  1. accessed 12/29/2019.
  2. Time (2015) accessed 12/29/2019.
  3. ibid.
  4. accessed 12/29/2019.
  5. accessed 12/29/2019.
  6. accessed 12/29/2019.

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