The importance of play

Play is a vital part of learning and developing as a child. Parents who understand the importance of play, offer their child quality, age appropriate play experiences and take time to play with their child are helping their child to learn valuable language, social and learning skills.

Play provides children with the opportunity to develop:

  • Language
  • Thinking skills
  • Social skills
  • Motor skills and coordination
  • Emotional skills
  • Imagination and creativity
  • Self-awareness

Playing with others allows children to develop:

  • Cooperation and group skills
  • Problem solving
  • Conflict resolution
  • Assertiveness
  • Decision making
  • Leadership and team work
  • Friendship skills

When an adult plays with a child they have the opportunity to:

  • Gain insight into the child’s view of the world
  • Develop a supportive relationship with the child
  • Facilitate the child’s language and learning skills

When play is used as a part of therapy, children are relaxed, focused and open to learning. When a child is having fun they will concentrate better, remember more and stay with an activity for longer. Play is a natural way of learning for children. Therapists are trained to choose activities that are at the right level for a child, capture their interest and hold their attention while targeting the skills the child needs to learn. Because it is fun, the child will happily repeat the activity a number of times allowing for repetition, refining and consolidating of skills. Because play is a natural part of a child’s day, things they learn in play will generalise to other settings.

Types of play:

Sensorimotor play begins in babies and involves exploring the word though the senses, by exploring textures, visual sensations, noise and movement. You can help your young child develop this type of play by offering bright, colourful, safe toys that move, have different textures or make noises such as rattles, musical toys, cloth toys and books as well as experiences such as sand and water, paint, glue, play dough and bubbles.

Practice play involves repeating new skills that are being learned, particularly motor skills such as running, jumping, catching, throwing and drawing. This begins in preschool and continues into the school years. You can help your child develop this type of play by offering age appropriate motor activities such as bikes, balls, craft activities and trips to the playground.

Symbolic play (also called pretend play, imaginative play or dramatic play) is when a child can use something and pretend it is something else, such as taking a block, pretending it is a biscuit and feeding it to a teddy. This play develops in the preschool years and is important for the development of language, social skills, learning and imagination. You can help your child develop this type of play by allowing them to explore dressing up, play with household items such as pots and pans as well as pretend play toys such as dolls and teddies, tea sets, cars, trucks, blocks and plastic animals.

Social play involves playing with others such as in games like hide and seek. It is important for the development of social skills such as turn taking and sharing. You can help your child develop this type of play by offering opportunities to play with other children of the same age and by helping practice skills such as taking turns and sharing.

Constructive play involves using skills and imagination to plan and produce something, such as building a bus out of a card board box or a castle out of blocks. You can help your child develop these skills by providing construction toys such as blocks and Lego as well as craft materials appropriate for their age.

Games involve play with others, following rules and managing competition. This play is more common in school age children and when played appropriately can help with self-esteem and managing challenges. You can help your child learn this type of play by playing age appropriate board games and card games together.

As children practice playing, they move through different stages.

Solitary play occurs when a child plays alone, focusing on an activity or toy.

Parallel play occurs when one child plays alongside another child but does not interact with them.

Associative play occurs when two or more children play with the same thing, or do the same activity but do not work together.

Cooperative play occurs when two or more children communicate and work together to make something or carry out an activity.

Points for playing with your child:

Choose games and activities appropriate for your child’s age, skill and developmental level. Activities that are too hard make children frustrated while ones that are too simple may not hold their interests or develop their skills.

Make some time each day to play with your child. You can help your child develop their play skills, language and learning while building a close positive relationship.

Let your child lead the play. Offer them an activity and watch and wait to see what they do with it. They may surprise you with a new idea. Join in the play their way and follow their lead.

Introduce new ideas gently to build on your child’s ideas and expand their skills but don’t force your way of doing things or change the play too much.

Offer a range of activities from the different types of play above. If your child has a preference for one type of play, offer some alternatives but don’t force them on your child or it is no longer “play”.

Provide a range of toys and materials but don’t overwhelm your child with too much choice at once. A room full of toys can be overwhelming. If you have lots of toys put some away to be brought out later when your child needs a change. Do leave any special favourites available though.

Save money by making use of second hand shops, hand me downs from friends and toy libraries to offer your child variety without spending too much.

When buying toys think about the different ways your child can use them. Can they be played with in many different ways? Can your child use them differently as they get older? Simple toys such as blocks that can be used in different ways as your child develops can be better value than expensive electronic toys that can only do one thing.

Limit the amount of TV, DVD’s and computer games so that your child has plenty of opportunity to play and develop these valuable skills.

Provide opportunities to play with others through play groups or getting together with friends to allow your child to develop social skills.

Keep safety in mind when providing things for your child to play with. Make sure there are no hazards and supervise your child.

Our website has lots of activities and information to download about children's development, learning and language. If you are concerned about your child browse our website to see how Talking Matters can help your child.

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