Healthy play, better coping

Why is play important for healthy development?

Play begins in the earliest phase of child development. Babies develop their senses by mouthing objects or playing with soft books. Play stimulates a child’s imagination and logical thinking. By playing together, children also learn social skills and how to cope with disappointment.

How does play help children to develop healthily and to cope with setbacks or illness?

Play is essential for healthy development. By playing, children learn forms of social interaction, motor skills and problem-solving.

Moreover, play promotes the development of emotional abilities and creativity. Through play, children experiment with their own (social) behaviour by imitating various situations and circumstances.

But play is not self-evident for all children, for instance, those with a chronic disease.

Multidisciplinary research

At the Healthy Play, Better Coping hub, multidisciplinary academics combine their expertise with social partners. Researchers from the faculties of Science, Veterinary Medicine and Medicine are participating.

boy playing with cars

Chronically ill children

Sanne Nijhof is a paediatrician at UMC-WKZ, treating children with juvenile arthritis, childhood cancer or cystic fibrosis. These are diseases that take a heavy toll not only physically, but also at the psycho-social level. Sanne Nijhof explains: ‘Many children experience stress, feel lonely and often lack interaction with healthy children. Children with a chronic disease can experience lasting consequences for their social, cognitive and emotional development. A lack of play seems to be an important factor here. This is something we are researching in more depth.’ Conversely, stimulating play in these children may help to prevent or alleviate persistent negative consequences of their illness in the long term.

Animal models

Comparisons to animal models show just how important play is in early life phases. The expertise of Heidi Lesscher, researcher at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, casts more light on this issue. ‘We can closely examine the role of play in rodents. If rats are unable to play, their resilience drops. They also exhibit inappropriate social behaviour and they are less good at problem-solving than animals that did play at an early age’, says Heidi Lesscher.

Applied game

Over at the other side of Utrecht Science Park, scientist Sander Bakkes is working on the development of an applied game for chronically sick children. ‘This game isn’t therapy, but above all a tool that can help children to better cope with their disease. You can use children’s interactions in a game like this to identify particular needs or indeed individual obstacles. The most challenging aspect is to design game interactions so that these translate into a positive effect in the real world.’

Research projects:

  • Doctoral research project Tara Pimentel: How does social play behaviour affect social, emotional and neurocognitive development? And what insights do animal models offer here?

  • Doctoral research project Esmé Möricke: Developing an instrument to measure and compare the playfulness of children.

  • Research project Sanne Nijhof: What is the relationship between play behaviour and the development of children with a chronic disease? For instance, in the area of social development, social participation and stress sensitivity. This research utilises data from the PROactive cohort study.

  • Doctoral research project Dionysis Alexandrisis: Developing an applied game focusing on loneliness in children with a chronic disease.

Join us!

If you think you can contribute to our research, contact dr. Heidi Lesscher via or +31 30 253 9876.

We collaborate with the following partners: