Children’s play is more than just fun, it’s a chance to learn and grow together

Children’s play is more than meets the eye. To watch young children at play is to witness the spectrum of human emotions and interpersonal transactions: excitement, imaginativeness, concentration, exploration, collaboration, negotiation, frustration, conflict, disappointment and relational repair.

Adults tend to equate children’s play with their own leisure activities, which are usually seen as something extra, but not essential—the dessert, but not the meal. This perspective is debatable, since play can improve adults’ physical and mental health. But play is especially important for children, as it is an essential element of healthy development.

Play contributes to all aspects of children’s development—social, emotional, physical, cognitive and spiritual—in ways that formal instruction cannot inspire.

It may be surprising to learn that play supports the development of literacy and early concepts of numbers. When a child uses a LEGO block as if it were a phone, that child is showing an understanding that things can represent other things: a block can stand in for a phone, a crayon can stand in for a spoon to feed the baby doll. Letters and numbers are also symbols, so early play with symbols is preparation for recognizing and working with letters and numbers. Young children also love playing with materials like sand, water, Play-Doh and dirt. Manipulating and pouring these substances helps children learn early science and math concepts, such as the properties of dry and wet, weight and volume.

But play offers children even more than the opportunity to master specific skills or learn specific concepts. Through play, children learn about themselves, their culture and the world around them. They begin to develop capacities to manage their behavior and big feelings, to gain a sense of confidence and competence, and to solve problems by experimenting with objects and with ways of being with others. These are important skills that they will need when they enter school.

Play also gives children a chance to work with their anxieties and to deal with difficult experiences. The monster that you draw, for example, can be faced better than the one you imagine and keep to yourself in your mind. When we adults are paying attention, we can learn a lot through children’s play about what worries them and how they are making sense of their experiences. If all that play did was to give children pleasure, it would be worth creating much space in their days to play. In fact though, play confers so many opportunities.

Here are some ideas for playing with your baby, toddler or preschooler:

How to play with your baby

  • Close contact
  • Give the baby your full attention
  • Sing-songy, repetitive voice: Talk, Talk Talk!
  • Imitate the baby’s sounds, coos, “raspberries”— back and forth, “serve and return” interactions help build communication skills
  • Show interesting objects for the baby to look at and track
  • With baby on their back, gently rotate their legs in a “bicycle” motion
  • Share simple books, being sure to let the baby touch or hold the book if they like
  • Pay attention to the baby’s cues that they need a break

Infants may show they need a break from the excitement of play with signals such as turning their head away, closing their eyes, getting fussy, arching their backs, hiccupping or falling asleep. Take a break. They’ll be back!

How to play with your toddler or preschooler

  • Give your child your full attention
  • Get on the floor with your child
  • Let your child choose the toys that interest them and move on to a different toy as they wish
  • Follow their lead in play (there’s no need to remind your child that Batman doesn’t “actually” have heat vision—let them use their imagination)
  • Go along with their ideas, rather than correcting their accuracy
  • Try not to “help” until your child has given something a good try and seems open to help. Persistence is good, but “just enough help” to move forward is useful in preventing too much frustration.
  • Take off the “teacher hat” and just have fun
  • Pay attention to your toddler or preschooler’s cues that they need a break

Toddlers and preschoolers may tell us with words that they are “all done” playing, or they may show us with their behavior. They may whine or become frustrated or lose their attention and walk away. Sometimes, we can entice them to return to play by showing them something different about a toy or playing with it in a different way. Sometimes, we accept that playtime is over for now.

All content in this article, including any advice or commentary from Southwest Human Development staff and/or others, should be considered an opinion and is provided for informational purposes only. The content is not intended to be a substitute for medical or other professional advice, diagnosis or treatment.  Always seek the direct advice of your own trusted professional with any questions or concerns you may have regarding the child/ren in your care.  Southwest Human Development does not recommend or endorse any specific tests, products, procedures or other information that may be mentioned in this article.  You may contact Southwest Human Development’s Birth to Five Helpline at 1-877-705-KIDS (5437) to speak with one of our early childhood professionals for personalized assistance.  Birth to Five Helpline specialists are available Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.