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How Does Play Impact Behavior in Children?

Did you know that playing teaches children how to behave in prosocial ways, even when an adult isn’t teaching them “how” to do it?

Did you know that most adults who have attachment disorders and personality disorders didn’t get to play in healthy ways as children? Many adults who are in prison for serious crimes against others were abused or neglected as children–studies show a high correlation between harmful crimes and a lack of empathy–but there is increasing evidence that empathy can be taught and increased in a person.

How is it taught, you ask?

Through PLAY!

If you think I’m suggesting that felons in prison should play with baby dolls and toy guns, that isn’t *necessarily* what I mean (though, I’m sure there could be a case made for it). I’m talking about people who lack empathy engaging in more age-appropriate play in order to grow their empathy.

Play comes in many different forms, but each of those forms activates different areas of the brain and promotes different types of social development.

For example…

Social play–play that requires taking turns and following a set of rules–teaches people how to function amongst a group. If you don’t follow the rules, people will exclude you from play time. If you don’t take turns, no one will enjoy having you around. It teaches societal expectations, as well as guidelines about how to make friends.

In children, this naturally gets to happen on the playground at school or with siblings at home. However, kids who come from very traumatic homes might be prevented from playing with siblings at home (locked in room, kept separated from siblings, made to work in adult-like ways, sex trafficked, etc), or they might go to school and have such negative behavior that their recess is taken away from them.

(I have a big soap box about not taking away recess time as a punishment, but I’ll save that for later.)

In the same way, adults who lack empathy and are separated from the rest of society–either through incarceration or hospitalization–probably aren’t getting much pro-social time, either.

Another type of play, which is called “rough and tumble play,” stimulates both the cerebral cortex and the hippocampus in the brain. This promotes logic, problem solving, and communication abilities.

Rough and tumble play (or RTP) is whole-body movement, such as roughhousing, wrestling, yelling, playing tag, climbing, jumping, and [appropriate] tickling. It teaches kids how to control their impulses, how to obey the boundaries of other people’s bodies, and how to control their motor functions. It also releases endorphins in the brain, raises the heartrate, and makes kids happy.

Imagine if adults who lacked empathy could engage in rough-and-tumble play for an hour a day. It would stimulate important areas of their brains, but it would also allow them to get out physical aggression in a way that is controlled and careful. It would teach them to be careful, which requires empathetic understanding of other people.

One of the most interesting stories about rough and tumble play is the story that recently came out about prisoners who are training service dogs for others.

These prisoners each get to build a relationship with one dog and take care of it from day-to-day. They also train the dogs to become helpful to their future owners. Working with these dogs helps the prisoners learn how to empathize with the dog’s needs and emotions, but it also allows them to take care of a living creature, which builds a sense of purpose in them.

It also stimulates the area of the brain that controls emotion, which strengthens the person’s ability to empathize with humans, as well.

During play time, the prisoners get to roughhouse with the dogs. This is “rough and tumble play,” which we previously explained has massive benefits to whoever is involved. The prisoners also get to role play (another form of play) with the dogs in ways that teach them about obedience and trust. Throughout it all, they get to practice communication skills with their dogs, which involves both verbal and non-verbal interaction, and creates better communication skills overall.

Not only are the prisoners in these situations able to do something positive for their community–which builds self-esteem and confidence–but they also get an opportunity to grow their brains. Oftentimes, people who’ve been given long-term prison sentences are left to rot until they die of old age. Yet, these types of programs allow them to grow, rehabilitate, and change. This doesn’t mean removing their consequences; it simply means giving them an opportunity to learn more socially acceptable ways to behave, even if they never get to leave the prison yard.

Before our children ever get to that point of prison, we need to be playing with them. We should be allowing them to play with one another. We shouldn’t be taking play time away because of negative behavior, and we definitely shouldn’t dismiss how important it is for us to interact with them just as often as they’re interacting with each other. We must REFUSE for them to spend five hours of their evenings staring at books and papers, as opposed to taking some time to play, participate in a sport, or go outside.

We must. It’s as important to their development as learning to read.

Hold them close. Make eye contact with them. Run with them. Roughhouse with them. Let them create. Let them get messy. Let them wreak havoc sometimes in your living room, even though it’s going to take all night to clean up.

Just let them play.

How Does Play Impact Behavior in Children?

W. R. Cummings

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APA Reference
Cummings, W. (2020). How Does Play Impact Behavior in Children?. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 27, 2020, from


Last updated: 3 Mar 2020
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