Play is one of the most important aspects of a child’s life. Why? Because through peekaboo, patty-cake, and playing house, children learn to think creatively and interact socially.
Through play, they develop physically and discover a slew of emotional skills,and they learn how to process the world. In short, play is pivotal to your child’s development.
“Play is how children learn,” says Dr. Tiff Jumaily, a pediatrician at Integrative Pediatrics and Medicine Studio City in Los Angeles.
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But what are the benefits of play and what type of engagement, toys, and activities do children really need? We asked some experts to weigh in.
While the benefits of play are innumerable — play helps children develop cognitively, physically, socially, and emotionally — there is more to play than fun and games.
Mayra Mendez, PhD, LMFT, a licensed psychotherapist and program coordinator at Providence Saint John’s Child and Family Development Center in Santa Monica, California, tells Healthline, “Play is important because it provides a primary foundation for learning, exploring, problem-solving, and building an understanding of the world and your role within it.”
But how do children learn through play? Well, it’s simple. Play allows children the chance to emulate what they see and practice skills. It gives them an outlet for creativity and experimentation, and play helps them learn how to interact and communicate with others.
Play promotes healthy development and critical thinking skills. It reinforces memory, helps children understand cause and effect, and, according to Mendez, helps children explore the world — and their role in it.
“Young children learn how things fit together through play. It allows them to use their senses and encourages exploration and curiosity, and these skills are the foundation of intellectual development and cognitive processing.”
Play also inspires children to pretend, create, and imagine. Creative, open-ended play helps children conceptualize, brainstorm, and exercise critical thinking skills.
Physically, play benefits children in a few ways, namely in the development of their fine and gross motor skills.
“Play benefits motor development by encouraging movement [and the] understanding of spatial relations, promoting motor planning skills, and supporting balance and dexterity,” Mendez says. “It also supports gross motor skills, such as energy, stamina, flexibility, and body awareness.”
Examples of physical play include running, jumping, swimming, block building, dancing, riding bikes, and climbing trees. (When you’re providing opportunities for these types of activities, remember key safety precautions — from bike helmets to pool supervision.)
Play is also important for social development because it helps children learn how to interact with others.
Through play, children develop an understanding of social expectations and rules, and play provides opportunities to share thoughts and ideas, to listen, and to compromise.
Additionally, play helps children understand and process their emotions.
“Kids process their emotions and new concepts through play,” Kim Wheeler Poitevien, a child therapist in Philadelphia, tells Healthline.
When a child loses a game, for example, they learn to process sadness, anger, and grief. Playing also helps build confidence and encourages the development of their identity and self-esteem.
The ways children play vary, depending on their age and interests. Here are a few ideas for both parents and kids.
Playing with young children may seem hard — after all, babies cannot sit, crawl, walk, talk, or stand. But according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), playful learning can start with baby’s first smile.
“At this stage, children are most interested in faces — and learning how to make these faces smile at them and laugh,” Jumaily says. “Babies love games like peekaboo. It helps teach them about object permanence. They love contrasting colors and textures. Think rattles and bits of crinkly paper, and they love making noise. Let them experiment hitting various pots and pans to see what sounds they make.”
Holding conversations with your little one is also very important, as it helps them develop their linguistic skills.
As your child grows, their play options increase. Toddlers love brightly colored objects, like age-appropriate balls, cars, and blocks. Puzzles are a great choice, as are simple artistic supplies, and pretend play is excellent for children of this age.
“You should encourage toddlers to engage in pretend play using dolls, blocks, common household objects, or by dressing up,” Mendez says.
Read to your toddler on a regular basis and encourage them to color or draw, as these activities will help the development of understanding, cognition, and their fine motor skills.
Preschool-age children are staunchly independent. They have an understanding of the world, and their place in it, and for that reason, much of their play at this age is self-driven and structured.
“Preschool age children are striving for independence in everything they do,” Jumaily says. “Parents will often notice that they insist not only on choosing their clothing, but putting it on all by themselves. For that reason, preschool is a great age to introduce solo activities, like puzzles, magnetic tiles, LEGOs, and tower building.”
That said, it is important to note that preschoolers need socialization. It is key to their development. Trips to the playground and park are great ways to encourage this as are games like tag, red light/green light, and Simon says.
Much like preschoolers, elementary and middle school-age kids are very independent. They are also very focused on school-based activities. However, play is still integral to their development.
“School-age kids need play too,” Wheeler Poitevien says. “Encourage outside play with a ball or bubbles, or plan a family game night. LEGO sets, Kinex, and other building toys are great too. Video games also count as play, but these activities should be done in moderation.”
Play helps children grow into strong, healthy, and independent individuals. It also helps them develop emotionally and reduces stress. However, a lack of play can have negative and long-lasting effects.
“Studies show that when kids don’t have the opportunity to play outside in nature, they are at higher risk for attention problems and behavior problems,” Jumaily explains. “Without proper play, kids do not have the chance to stretch their imagination and build the skills they need to succeed in the workplace and in their life. A lack of play can also stunt an individual’s social and emotional development.”
A 2018 study by the AAP also found the absence of play can increase stress. “Play is not frivolous… it is brain building,” Jumaily says. “When play and safe, stable, nurturing relationships are missing in a child’s life, toxic stress can disrupt the[ir] development.”
Play is valuable to children — very valuable. In fact, the benefits of play cannot be overstated. So run, sing, and dance with your children. Play games with your kiddos, and have fun!