Overview of Cognitive Skills

What Does Constructive Play Have to Do with Cognitive Skills?

A young girl engages in constructive play at a Multifunctional Table.
A young girl engages in constructive play at a Multifunctional Table.

All academic content study, including math, science, social studies and language arts, are dependent on a child developing foundational skills and concepts through functional and constructive play. This is where a child begins to recognize things like same and different, one and more than one, gravity, family versus strangers, me versus you, and so much more. When teaching standard curriculum content to children at the earliest developmental levels we must recognize this will occur through play activities that they undertake on their own and with trusted adults who know how to be a good playmate. The ability to fully participate in standard curriculum content as their same-age peers will depend on the cognitive, motor, and social skills they learn through play.

Play Is Crucial for Cognitive Development

As we shared in the Principles section What Is Play?, children learn through play. All academic skills are built through this activity of play. Play is key to cognitive development.

Play promotes the development of a multitude of cognitive skills. When children participate in play and have opportunities to become fully involved in what they are doing, they develop more sophisticated and complex ways of thinking. Children learn to solve problems as they discover the answers to their own questions such as “Does this piece go here?” or “What happens when I do this?” When children have the opportunity to have extended periods of time (at least 30 minutes of uninterrupted time) to engage in play that is meaningful and relevant to their lives both attention span and memory skills are enhanced.

Tip Sheets: How Play Promotes Cognitive Development. Center for Inclusive Child Care (2020)

Over the past few decades, researchers in the fields of education and child psychology have amassed significant evidence for the necessity of play in children’s lives. There is no denying that play is fun, and certainly fun is its biggest draw for children. However, as children play, they also develop critical cognitive, emotional, social, and physical skills. Play even contributes to proper brain development (Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000). In this way, play is an important end in itself; it is also a means to other ends. The skills children learn through play in the early years set the stage for future learning and success from the kindergarten classroom to the workplace.

Dr. Rachel E. White (2012). THE POWER OF PLAY: A Research Summary on Play and Learning

Functional Versus Constructive Play

The earliest stage of play, according to Piaget, is called “functional play”. This means the child has explored materials, has some understanding of different sizes, has some experience of what prevents them falling, and has explored them with their various senses. The next stage of play is termed “constructive play”, which is defined as the child making something intentionally, creatively and with hands-on curiosity. The child moves from a functional understanding to a clear idea of the properties of the materials they are using. (Matt Arnerich, 2021. Constructive play: what is it and how do I encourage it?)

Children under the age of about two are engaged in developing skills that will allow them to participate in constructive play. These include the development of motor skills and also familiarity with various materials and objects. This is functional play. At about the developmental age of two children are generally engaging in constructive play.