Understanding the Importance of Play
How the fun of childhood creates a foundation for success
Play. It's fun, natural and has no apparent purpose. Yet play is so critically important for childhood that without it children are at risk of short and long-term social, neurological, emotional and academic difficulties. An essential element of both a happy childhood and a healthy, successful future, it's through play that children learn about the world and how to express and make sense of themselves in it. This is pretty amazing for something that doesn't need to be taught and occurs spontaneously in every child on the planet.
Play is so important to the healthy development of children that it's considered a human right of every child. A key factor in the development of a healthy brain, physical skills and dexterity, sensory awareness, emotional competency and social interaction, play helps cultivate creativity, self-discovery, self-expression, language skills, academic success, healthy movement, imagination, and the awareness of others.
Without opportunities for play, children are at risk of not developing to their potential.
What is play?
Play occurs from infancy in children of every country, culture, creed and class. It's a biological drive and a natural expression of being in the world. Despite this, play is hard to define, usually understood as something that's freely chosen, for no apparent purpose, fun, outside of ordinary time, absorbing, flexible and something you want to keep doing.
Play is the basis for artistic expression, athletic prowess and almost everything a child creates. It can be solitary and quiet, exploratory and social, complex and dramatic, or rough and tumble and physical. Depending upon the child, play comprises everything from drawing and puzzles to swinging on a playground or digging in the garden – there are no strict rules. The type of play might change as they grow and develop, but never loses its meaning and importance.
Play offers endless variations for connections and learning. Movement through play builds coordination, dexterity, imagination and strength, as well as opportunities for age-appropriate risk-taking and dealing with fear. Games build kinaesthetic, scientific, musical and verbal abilities. No matter what sort of play your child is engaged in, play also offers you special opportunities for close connection and bonding, a way to both learn more about your child and enjoy yourself in the process.
The social aspect of play
Play also supports your child's relationship with others. Active play offers an ideal opportunity for children to develop important social interactions like creating and maintaining healthy friendships. It also builds an understanding of other viewpoints and other people's emotions – including the impact of your child's actions towards others.
Play changes as your child moves from early infancy to early childhood and beyond. Your baby's first play is likely to be exploring your face, playing games like peek-a-boo, exchanges of smiling and talking, or in the simple moments of close contact that occur through feeding and cuddling. Babies are also regularly discovering the joy of their own fingers, hands and feet, or tasting and mouthing objects they learn to grasp and reach for. Much of this play is solitary, though often in the company of a trusted adult.
As they gain motor skills and increased movement, toddlers investigate their environment through exploratory play. As children age the solitary play of early life is replaced by parallel play, where a child plays alongside other children, and then social play, where they play actively with other children. Once social play emerges, the variety of play increases exponentially. Now there are opportunities for all sorts of fantasy play, dramatic play, imaginative play, rough-and-tumble play, and cooperative problem-solving play.
The role of toys in play
While they were invented for the purpose of children's play, it's important to realise that toys don't define the play experience.
What toys do is allow for social connection and imaginative exploration, opening your child to a world not available without them. When your child's playing with a talking doll for example, the magic comes from the way their imagination is captured by the story and meaning they create for the toy.
A short summary of play
- Play occurs naturally in childhood, is a biological drive and is seen as a human right.
- Play is essential to healthy neurological, emotional, physical and social development, including academic success.
- Play begins in infancy and develops and changes as your child ages. It remains important throughout childhood.
- Play does not need to be scheduled or taught. It will occur spontaneously based on interaction with loved ones, other children, and environments that provide opportunity to interact with objects, nature and toys.
- Play is not expensive nor exclusive. It's available to all children and there are simple ways to create play-friendly environments.
- Nature, simple objects, daily chores, and moments of connection offer a foundation for healthy play. Toys and gadgets are positive additions to the play experience but ideally should not dominate.
How to help your child play to their potential
- Forming connections through play – in infancy, babies will enter the world of play through eye contact and learning to touch, grasp, mouth and babble. Take the opportunity to share a smile, talk with your baby, cuddle them, and expose them to various day-to-day sights and sounds. Allow them to discover their hands and feet and have access to safe, varied objects they can look at, grasp and put in their mouths. As they grow older, notice how your child may call "Look at me, Mum!" or "Watch this, Dad!" as they play. They want you to delight in their discoveries and exploration.
- Infant toys are simple and safe – find objects they can grasp that are safe for their hands and mouths and not too heavy to hurt them. Things like wooden blocks with soft edges, rattles, empty containers, balls of varying sizes and materials, and board books are perfect. Larger items they can touch with various textures are also great, including scarves, mirrors, or large stainless steel bowls. Allow them to have natural experiences like lying in the garden, or feeling water when the bath is running. Just make sure that you're keeping an eye on your baby while they're playing, especially in and around water.
- The fun of exploration – toddlers are on the move and this gives them the ability to explore their surroundings. All of the suggested toys for babies are great for toddlers too, but now they're older they'll able to experience them in other ways. Toddlers are also able to engage in gross motor skills, starting their ability to stack, dig, climb, draw, play give-and-take games, use props and dress up, and navigate obstacles. As long as it's safe to do so, couches, chairs and stairs offer natural indoor settings for climbing. With increasing verbal abilities, singing songs and reading stories are now even more fun.
Playgrounds offer opportunities for outdoor exploration and physical activity, as does the natural environment. And don't forget about the simple things, such as walks around the neighbourhood, helping with pegging up the washing and simple food preparation.
- Playing with imagination – into the preschool years, children start fully developing their imagination and a new world of play unfolds. Now a box of dress ups (the more simple and generic the better – swathes of cloth, basic garments, scarves and ties) can offer a different experience every day. Now containers can be bowls for a tea party, dog dishes for imaginary pets, seats for dolls, hats for space explorers and drums for music time. Plastic or cloth animals can be used in countless ways.
For many children at this age, ample outdoor and active time is essential for happiness, with the opportunities it offers for interacting with others and playing imaginative games. Don't forget too that children also benefit from quiet playtime where they can reconnect with you or a loving carer. Let your child direct the play during this time – if you let them, they'll take you into their world and you can enjoy learning and exploring along with them.
- Play doesn't come from a screen – Many children enjoy a bit of screen-time and it can offer parents a break while they have a shower, cook tea or take a phone call. Just remember that your child isn't learning more from a DVD than they are from natural play and their own imagination. Pablo Picasso once famously said computers are useless ‘because they only give you answers,' whereas play has creativity and spontaneity that creates healthy minds. Too much time in front of a screen may alter brain development in ways that we don't fully understand yet. Set reasonable limits, and try especially to avoid screens in the hours before bedtime – they can make it harder for your child to wind down and fall asleep.
- Play comes in many forms – most children, especially boys, need rough and tumble play on a daily basis. This helps them learn to manage their bodies, power, and energy, and also to self-regulate. Children also need opportunities for creative expression, fantasy play and solitary pursuits. A box of wooden blocks, a container of crayons and paper, a neighbourhood playground, your local library, or some fabric and containers can provide all the stimulus your child needs. One week may be all about soldiers, the next your child may crawl around and pretend they're a cat. No type of play is best – each offers growth and development that's uniquely achieved through the world of play.
Some further reading
Play: How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination and invigorates the soul, by Stuart Brown, MD (Penguin Books, 2009)
A web-based article providing an overview about play and its importance, different kinds of play, and helpful examples of activities and games in each category
An article from the Brainwave Trust newsletter on learning and play:
Tips and tools on play in children from Zero To Three website:
A video from Zero To Three on the world of play:
An article with safe, creative, flexible, free-play toy recommendations with links to other resources about play: