How to Use Structured Play to Enhance Children’s Cognitive Development

child playing with wooden blocks on yellow carpet

This blog has been written by EYR Industry Expert Keya Elie. A Research Scientist with 10 years’ experience in the field of Child and Family Psychology. Her studies focus on parent-child interactions across various socioeconomic backgrounds and cognitive outcomes for children between the ages of 2-5. In this blog Keya discusses the importance of parent-child interactions for cognitive development. She also shares her top tips to improve cognitive development through structured play.

Structured Play with children can become a goldmine for further enhancing a child’s cognitive development. Whether your child is building a castle with Legos or making dinner in their pretend play kitchen. These are opportunities where you can create meaningful and memorable parent-child interactions.

Four easy ways to enhance playtime with your child can include scaffolding, autonomy-supportive behaviours, responsiveness/sensitivity, and imaginative play.


Scaffolding is a concept commonly found in child development literature. It refers to the belief that new information can be understood if a child is given support as they learn.

For example, participating in play with your child means you can break the task into easier chunks for them. By taking this step-by-step approach, you can immediately identify and address gaps in their comprehension.

Some examples of scaffolding during parent-child play can include:

  • Posing limited answer questions: If your child is having trouble coming up with an answer to a question on their own, provide multiple answers for your child to choose from in order to help them arrive at the correct response.
  • Using demonstrations: model how to break the task down into smaller steps that your child can follow.
  • Making suggestions: handy is your child is having trouble completing a section of your play session or task. Offer hints or partial solutions to help them get to the next step without giving away the answer.

Ultimately, scaffolding allows you, as a parent, to identify your child’s current understanding of a task. This then means you can make adjustments to further their comprehension and exploration in areas where their knowledge is limited. Essentially, scaffolding allows parents to identify what their child knows and what they have yet to learn.

Autonomy Supportive Behaviours

Autonomy supportive parenting is the act of providing children with the perception of choice during a learning experience. This can then help foster their intrinsic motivation, independence, responsibility, and self-direction. During parent-child structured play, autonomy support can be displayed in a myriad of ways. All leading to intentional parental behaviours that encourage children to make age-appropriate independent decisions and perform independent actions.

During your next playtime with your child, try to encourage independent thoughts and actions in the following ways:

  1. Using encouraging language vs. directive. “What do you think about placing the block here?” or “What should be our next step?”
  2. Asking probing questions: This encourages your child to come up with an answer independently. For example, if you and your child are building a tower with blocks, you could ask, “What do you think would happen if we built a tower super tall?”
  3. Asking your child about their preferences: “Do you want to start with the blue blocks or the red blocks?”. (Allow your child to make age-appropriate decisions based upon their developmental milestones

Remember to encourage your child to continue to take independent actions, even if they lead to mistakes. Mistakes are a part of the learning process, therefore continue to motivate your child to make more decisions that may lead to the success of completing a task during your structured play and provide support by scaffolding if needed.

Responsiveness and Sensitivity

Responsive and sensitive parent-child interactions can convey to your child that you are flexible, actively attentive, and sensitive in responding to their emotional, mental, and physical cues when spending time together.

Sensitive responding takes place when parents:

  • Listen and respond in a sensitive manner to good and bad feelings, including but not limited to, excitement, embarrassment, sadness, and fear.
  • Focus on their child’s body language and tone.
  • Allow their child to finish speaking to them and then respond
  • Use their own body language to show that they’re invested in the interaction, their child’s actions, and feelings. (To physically show your investment, face your child, make eye contact, and turn to look at your child when they are speaking)

Accurately interpreting and responding to your child’s signals during play not only allows them to feel valued but also reaffirms that their learning takes place in an environment that is safe and comfortable.

Imaginative Play

Whether prompted by you or your child, imaginative play is a fun and informative parent-child interaction that can allow your child to ascribe emotions and thoughts to objects and introduce new socio-emotional skills. Structured play, with an element of imagination, also gives parents the opportunity to teach their child how to use certain items or behave in different settings that are otherwise deemed unsafe or inappropriate for a child at their age (kitchens, restaurants, using major appliances (washer and dryer), etc.).

Providing children with the following items and opportunities can facilitate imaginative play:

  • Plenty of props, (kitchen sets, restaurant sets, apartment sets, toy washing machines, occupational clothing etc.).
  • Adequate playtime in your child’s schedule for them to enact multiple imaginative situations and scenarios.
  • Involve your child in your daily chores and incorporate incidental learning into these situations. For example, while you are preparing dinner, you might invite your child to cook alongside you with their play items.

Props for Parent-Child Play

EYR offers a range of role-playing products to help facilitate scaffolding and imaginative play in the classroom and the home. Here are a few products that I’ve hand-selected in hopes to help you and your child spend more time playing together!

Scaffolding: Try building blocks or construction toys! Creating structures that become increasingly difficult can test your child’s understanding of the task’s instructions and allow you the opportunity to help support them in building the final structure when necessary. The wooden Zoo Building Blocks and wooden London Building Blocks are fantastic options.

Imaginative Play: To spark your child’s imagination, try recreating a kitchen, shop or restaurant within your home to allow them the freedom to explore these environments in a safe and fun manner.

Particularly in the early years, age birth to five, spending time with your child as a parent or caregiver is especially critical. These are the prime years for a child’s cognitive development. When possible, try to introduce structured play that is not only enjoyable for your little one but also educational to ensure that they are prepared to enter elementary school when the time comes. Continue to constantly gain your child’s input on their learning process to make their early learning a collaborative effort and several years that you and your child will never forget. As always, remember to make play a part of your day!

Note from the author: The following tips are derived from empirical research and organizations that are committed to providing accessible information on child development to educators and parents/caregivers.

More about the author


Keya is currently studying as a 3rd-year Psychology Ph.D. Student at the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Family Research. Keya is also an early childhood program evaluator and researcher for nonprofit and government agencies in the United States. Additionally, Keya’s experience working with families includes her time as a Positive Parent Program Practitioner and a Parent Café Facilitator. She holds a degree in Psychology from North Carolina State University and a Masters in Clinical Psychology from Columbia University.

If you wish to contact Keya, feel free to connect with her via email or LinkedIn.
LinkedIn: Keya Elie

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