The Benefits of Play in Childhood Development


Playdates. Music class for babies. Story hour at the library. Toddler yoga. Kid-friendly hiking group. Babies at the barre. Mommy and me classes. Tuesday $2 kid movies at the cinema. Family dinners and grandma’s house on the weekend.

Given the popularity of children’s activities, today’s kids seem to have very little unscheduled time in which they are left to play independently. However, playtime is critically important to developing minds, as it helps a child grow his imagination, problem-solving skills, creativity and more.

Revered television host and educator Fred Rogers, known to most of us as our believed neighbor Mr. Rogers, said “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.”

As usual, Mr. Rogers is absolutely right. Here is a look at how the apparently frivolous but actually critically important work of play benefits children.

Playtime Offers Emotional Support

Since the child doesn’t yet have the words or mental ability to convey her feelings and emotions, look for her to express them in play. For example, a child worried about riding the bus to kindergarten might want to play bus driver to work through those feelings. A child who finds a new baby is joining the family might want to play daddy to work through the news of his new little brother. Play with them to show how both situations are exciting and safe. Your cues will impact their emotional development.

Sometimes parents or caregivers are surprised to see a child exhibit a particular behavior during playtime. Maybe a typically calm child acts out of character during playtime, throwing toys around and raising her voice. She’s actually showing you that she is working through emotions. Perhaps she saw another child acting that way or doesn’t understand that type of behavior. You can help by modeling the right way to respond and diffusing any tension.

Playtime Builds Social Skills

Babies and toddlers tend to play side-by-side with other children without much interaction or communication. As they grow, children will learn to take turns, collaborate and communicate through games and activities.

Playtime provides the best opportunity for social development among peers. Cooperative play with other children is the ultimate goal. This is achieved when, instead of playing in the same space with different toys and without interaction, children are actually working together toward a common goal. Games like follow the leader, playing school and hide and seek are great for cooperative play. Even a major disagreement over who will get to be the teacher during pretend school is actually a conduit for learning about conflict and sharing.

Playtime Provides Physical Development

Many parents receive physical development benchmarks from their pediatricians. These benchmarks often create anxiety or worry as parents wonder, “Should he be walking by now? Should he be able to feed himself at this age?” The worries go on and on.

In truth, play can help every child’s physical development. A tea party can help a child develop the coordination needed to feed herself, and playing dress-up can help a child learn to dress herself. Skipping and playing balance beam can help her build balance, and coloring or other crafts build hand-eye coordination.

If there is an area of physical development you’d like to promote, think about a fun activity that might encourage growth in that area.

So next time you are driving through a neighborhood and see one of those signs that warns Caution, Children at Play, think to yourself, “Good, that’s exactly what they should be doing!” Use it as a reminder to ensure the children in your own life are given ample time to reap the benefits of playtime.