Why is play important?
Play and physical activity support children’s wellbeing and development. Play shapes brain development through increasing brain connections. Play leads to improved emotional wellbeing, physical health, learning and social development. It supports development from birth all the way through to the independence and self-reliance of the teenage years and beyond.
What do children value in play?
Children love outdoor play, unstructured and self-directed play, and play in nature. These activities contribute to creativity and problem solving. They learn to share and navigate social situations. They love the sensory feeling of natural materials like water, leaves, sand and mud. They love exploring what they can make and build with these materials.
Children enjoy and need time to play alone. They also like to and benefit from play with siblings, parents, relatives, friends and animals.
Children play in different ways as they grow but the principles of play remain throughout—active engagement, creativity and using imagination. Children also play with digital resources in various ways, both by themselves and sharing with others.
Self-directed play, guided play and organised play can occur at all ages. In older teenagers, the concept of play is often mixed with creative arts, crafts and sport.
What can parents do to support their children’s play?
Any sort of space can be used for play. It could be a small room, a tiny balcony, a yard or a park. Everyday household objects such as cardboard boxes, spoons and bowls, fabrics and balls can spark a child’s imagination. Toys can be a great asset but are not always needed and do not have to be expensive. The best materials for play are things that can be used in many different ways and that children can use by themselves.
Allowing a child to lead the play, either by themselves or with others joining in, improves their creativity and imagination. When children play without adult intervention, they learn to sort out problems themselves and build social skills. Children can benefit from being bored sometimes as they will work to come up with new ideas and build resilience.
Play does not have to be an organised activity or at an organised time. Playful moments can occur in general day-to-day activities. You could sing and dance on the way to the bath. You could pretend to be characters in a story whilst reading or tidying up together. You could jump and skip along the street or play catch in a hallway.
Some parents worry about outside play. For example, they may be concerned that the weather is bad, or that their child might get hurt or lost. Teaching children how to cope with these problems helps them to become more independent and capable. Children can learn to choose appropriate clothes, to pick themselves up after a fall or a scratch, and to find their way around the neighbourhood.
Key points to remember
- Play is the universal language of children. It is vitally important for child development and learning.
- Children enjoy playing in many different ways. Playing outside, playing in nature, and self-directed play allow them to express their individuality and creativity.
- Children benefit from unsupervised play. They can use their imagination, play creatively with others, and learn to solve any problems that might occur.
- Parents can help by allowing play in all sorts of spaces. Use common household objects rather than expensive toys and create playful moments out of everyday activities.
For more information
Raising Children Network:
Developed by The Royal Children's Hospital Centre for Community Child Health department. We acknowledge the input of RCH consumers and carers.
Reviewed Febrauary 2023.
This information is awaiting routine review. Please always seek the most recent advice from a registered and practising clinician.
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