Fostering Children's Intelligence through

Fostering Children's Intelligence through Play

Did you know that more than just about any other activity, play is what promotes the healthy development of your child?

Babies and young children learn best when they have warm, engaged, and responsive relationships with their main caregivers. This is because their brain establishes positive neural connections based on trust, thus making it more receptive to explore and absorb new ideas and concepts.

Humans, by nature are biologically and genetically tuned to play. Dr. Stuart Brown, a psychiatrist, founder and president of the National Institute for Play, offers important insights from his intriguing studies of play in humans and animals. Brown has identified five “warm-blooded play basics” - spontaneous, purposeless, repetitive, pleasurable, joyful and that which puts the player at risk as it involves anti-gravity moves such as leaping, spinning mid-leap, jumping and diving. As much as this may seem purposeless to a grown adult mind, in reality it is deeply rooted to intellectual gains and development for the child.

A deeper look at a game of tag demonstrates this principle. Though it may seem like a bunch of kids running around chasing each other, there is much more to it! When children take turns at being the chaser and at being chased, their minds are functioning around the knowledge and experience of sharing power and authority. For the child who refuses to be the tagger, it is an emotional learning experience which will assist with boosting confidence and help acquire and strengthen social skills through play itself. So the next time you find yourself pushing your child to socialize, consider doing it in a natural setting which involves play that interests them.

Children learn as they play. Most importantly in play children learn how to learn - O. Fred Donaldson 

Here are some more interesting details about play, cognitive development, and intellectual skills.

“Pointless” acts serve a purpose. 

The highest form of play has been labeled to be imaginative play. It allows children to make connections between experiences and articulate them easily. This type of play is organized by the children, for themselves where their imagination is considered a sacred space. The process entails children recalling known images and synthesising them to create new images, thus generating first hand original images and experiences for themselves.  Intellectually speaking, this is where the child is laying the foundations for high-level creative abstract thoughts in his/her later life. This complex neural process also helps to lay the foundations of empathy, and of a rich spiritual life in the heart.

"Fiction gives us empathy: it puts us inside the minds of other people, gives us the gifts of seeing the world through their eyes. Fiction is a lie that tells us true things, over and over." - Neil Gaiman [align as quotation]

Experiences provide for multiple learning opportunities. 

What a child experiences as part of their daily life encounters and interactions lays strong foundations for many practical concepts, such as literacy and mathematics. Some examples include sharing food in equal portions (think pizza slices), comparing different objects using standard and non-standard measurements, and through the use of vocabulary and phrases.

By way of self-guided discovery through play, children learn to figure out things on their own and consequently promote critical thinking. When working their way through a puzzle, a child is able to decode geometrical and visual links based on similarities.  This allows him to solve problems based on reasoning.

Water play is another fun and enjoyable activity which kids absolutely love. Children can stay focused at playing in water for hours. The benefits of this type of play extend onto formal learning in areas where concentration is vital within the setting. Not only that, water play helps unfold understanding of scientific concepts like floating/sinking (gravity), reflection/refraction (light) as well as links to mathematical concepts such as depth, volume, and capacity. 

Play stirs emotions. 

Emotional development is closely related to physical development (which is a biological derivative of play, as discussed earlier). The phrase “emotions in play” refers to the feelings of self-awareness and how a child deals with others on the basis of his/her feelings. The more self aware and alert a child is to the verbal and nonverbal cues from others, the more emotionally intelligent they are considered to be. This means that they are better able to understand others, manage their emotions positively, and hence maintain healthy relationships.  

An unstructured approach is beneficial.

As individuals, each one of us owns our own imagination. Children are the same. They take pride in exhibiting their creativity in their own unique way, showing what they are capable of. Often, we tend to overload our children with ideas, toys and our own suggested ways of doing things. But when we do so, we suppress the child's ability to think for themselves and, in the longer run, the ability to stand up for themselves. The idea of letting children explore must not be restricted or controlled to our own personal gains, rather let it be natural and open-ended. You will observe how that will lead to newer discoveries for them and you to learn together. The more unstructured the play, the higher the intellectual gains.

The importance of play can be likened in importance with the importance of a good night’s sleep. With technical innovations abounding and the challenges that come with them, it is important to urge our children to continue playing and enjoy the freedom in being creative rather than captivated. Let’s help nurture the Sunnah of our beloved Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him), by instilling values like empathy, optimism, perseverance, resilience, and belongingness in our children through supporting them with unlimited and endless opportunities for unstructured play. 

For more information on the science of play, visit the National Institute for Play’s Encyclopedia of Play Science at

Umm Ahmed is an early childhood educator and writer who is passionate about seeking knowledge and passing it onto others. She and her husband are parents to three boys and are currently living in Abu Dhabi.


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