The Importance of Play in Child Development

More than classes and activities, play is the most important part of your child’s development. Learn the benefits of play in early childhood and the different stages of play.

the importance of play in early childhood

Pediatricians, therapists, and preschool teachers alike know play is an integral part of a child’s early years. It’s one of the main ways children learn and develop, and it also contributes a great deal to the mental health, emotional health, and happiness of your little guys.

That said, there’s still quite a lot of conflicting information out there about the true value of play.

Benefits of Play in the Early Years

In searching for a good definition of play I like how Google defines play as “Engaging in an activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical reason.”

With this definition in mind, when I talk about childhood and play, I’m talking about the enjoyment of climbing trees, riding bikes, inventing games, building forts, playing board games, hide-and-seek, playing tag, and putting on a show.

So, is play that powerful and important for kids? Should their early years be about playful discovery? Are kids really learning while they’re playing?

To help answer some of these questions, let’s dive into three reasons why as parents we need to make sure to protect our children’s playtime. Let them play, and what’s more, create free time for unstructured enjoyment and spontaneous play.

1. Play and learning are not mutually exclusive.

Research shows us that play is more than just kids keeping busy or having fun – It is a source of development for them.

When kids are playing, all kinds of skills are developing– language skills, gross and fine motor skills, cognitive skills, creativity, self-control, body awareness, decision-making skills, problem-solving skills, coping skills, emotional regulation skills, and social skills. Play helps them develop the ability to concentrate too.

Children develop these multiple skills through hands-on exploration, movement, pretend play, building, and outdoor fun. The more they play the more brain growth and skills development occurs.

2. Long Term Benefits of Play for Children

It’s not just for their childhood that play is important. There are some significant long term gains too.

Longitudinal studies have shown that social skills in kindergarten are predictive of positive outcomes in early adulthood more so than a child’s academics in kindergarten. The study found kindergarteners who had more developed social skills (sharing, taking turns, teamwork, communication, compassion and problem-solving) were more likely to go to college, get a job, stay away from drugs and alcohol, and not have problems with the law at age 25.

3. Decrease in Mental Health Disorders

Over the past several decades, playtime has become more structured and kid’s free time has become filled with classes and activities. There has been a decrease in the amount of time children spend in unplanned self-directed play.

At the same time, we’ve seen an increase in mental health disorders among children. Anxiety and depression are on the rise, and researchers believe there’s a direct correlation between the decrease in play and the increase in mental health disorders. Time spent on technology and organized activities have taken over children’s free playtime.

Among other benefits too, play builds a child’s confidence and self -worth and helps create space for better mental health.


Stages of Play

American sociologist Mildred Parten Newhall observed the free play of preschool children ages 2-5.

From her research she recognized six different types of play in children, where certain types of play are more specific to certain age groups. As children grow and develop their play evolves from less social (solitary, onlooker and parallel) to more social (associative and cooperative).

Unoccupied Play – When children are observing not playing, or they appear to make random movements with no clear play intentions. Parten considered this the initial form of playing.

Solitary (independent play) – Common in toddlers around 18 months to 3 years old. Children spend time playing on their own. Children are exploring their own world and focused on an activity or object of interest to them. During this stage, children don’t seem to notice other kids sitting or playing near them.

Onlooker Play – Also common in the older toddler years. Children will observe other children playing without effort or attempts to join the play. They make ask questions about the play but won’t join in.

Parallel Play – This type of play is a bridge between younger, more socially immature solitary or onlooker play and the more mature associative or cooperative types of play that will begin to come on board. Children will begin to play in closer proximity to other children, side-by-side, There is still no interaction between the children however they will begin mimicking the other’s actions.

Associative Play – Begins around three years old when children become less focused on the toys/objects and more interested in socializing with other children. Where they may be more interactions with other children in this stage there is no interest or ability in coordinating their activities and so the activities they are engaged in are not in sync.

Cooperative (social) Play – Cooperation is an advanced skill. Children are now interested in both the people playing as well as the activity. Play is more organized and is characterized by group goals and rules for play. Children learn to problem solve, share, and take turns as they cooperate more with others.

Types of Play

Peter Gray – Psychologist, researcher, and author on the topic of play – highlights different types of play that are important to children’s development.

Physical Play – Any play that involves physical or large motor skills like running, jumping, hopping, skipping, roughhousing and chasing. Physical play helps children get more coordinated, builds muscle tone and strength and is a great way to get their energy out.

Language Play – Language is a critically important skill children learn while they play. Babies engage in language play, cooing, and babbling, as a way to learn to talk. Toddlers may repeat phrases over and over as they play and as language develops have monologues as they are playing. Preschoolers play with phrases, puns, and rhyming words. They will have pretend dialogues when playing alone and engage in conversations with peers when playing with others.

Exploratory Play – When babies use their senses including touch, smell, and taste to manipulate objects and explore the world around them.

Games with Formal Rules – This form of play has rules that must be followed by the players. Preschoolers can engage in simple games with rules like matching games, board games like Candyland, and playing tag. As children grow and mature they will engage in games like hopscotch, foursquare, and team sports that have very specific rules that must be followed.

Constructive Play – Children play at building and constructing things. They work to fit things together and figure out how to get them to fit. Legos, blocks, boxes and recycled materials are great for this, as are pillows and blankets for building forts. This play type of play gets more advanced and complex the older children get.

Fantasy Play – Pretend play gives children the opportunity to try on different roles like “mommy”, “daddy” or “doctor”. Taking on and practicing the different roles allows children to figure out how the world works while also providing a sense of control and power.

Fantasy play also gives children the opportunity to use their imagination and construct pretend worlds of princesses, princes, heroes, and pirates, allowing children the opportunity to indulge their interests and sense of wonder and lets them escape and have fun too (something us adults need to remember to take time to do).

Play is Social

When children interact with others they are learning a myriad of social skills – they learn how to get along with others – give and take, sharing, taking turns, compromise, cooperation, and negotiation. They learn what interests them and they learn decision-making skills and emotional regulation.

Playing with peers is an inborn drive in children. Dr. Gray states, “social play makes children happy, and its absence makes them unhappy.” We are social beings. Getting along with others and having friends is what makes for a happier life and there is no more compelling reason than this to make sure we give children access to their peers and time to just play.

Encouraging and Supporting Play

Participate. When engaging in play with your child let them take the lead. Let your kids come up with the ideas of what to play and how to play. This is true even for toddlers and preschoolers.

Encourage mistakes. Let children play ‘their way’. As adults, it’s hard not to take over. We feel like we know the best way to do things and how to avoid mistakes. Mistakes are part of the process and there’s a lot of value in a conversation following a mistake for reevaluating, and problem-solving. 

Create a play space.Create a safe space where children are free to play and explore as they wish. Fill the space with games and open-ended materials that can be used in many different ways. Encourage your child to use their imagination and problem-solving skills.

Step back. Children know how to play so trust them to do it! Give your kids the time. space, freedom, and permission they need to explore their world through play. Support their play as needed, but also learn to let them be.

Let Your Child Play, It’s Good for Them!

Providing your toddler or preschooler with ample opportunities for play provides so much more than “fun”. Play allows children to relax, let off steam, and is a powerful teaching and learning tool. Your children want to play. Watching them I bet you’ll begin to notice that they are naturally driven to play.

So now you know, your kids are playing and learning. How will you support their health and development and give your little ones the time and space for the unstructured play experiences they want and need?

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, stressed, confused, or frustrated with parenting or your kids’ behavior and you want a safe place to talk about your challenges without feeling judged or criticized, I can help.

Contact me to schedule a free phone conversation to see if my coaching is right for you and your family. You can email me at [email protected]

Your child’s potential is limitless. Their success begins with you.
Your parenting counts!


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