Playing with Your Child

Play has developmental value

Research has repeatedly shown that play has numerous developmental benefits for children. Children “practice” the concepts they learn through their play. It is delightful to see children focus on a block or science activity for hours as they learn about how things work. Other reasons for play include:

  • Children learn math skills, literacy, and build their vocabulary through play.
  • Play can be vehicle through which they explore an idea that is mysterious, frightening, or troubling to them in a safe, imaginary setting. Doing so reduces stress and prepares children to cope with things emotionally.
  • Active play, especially when outdoors, builds strength and physical coordination and helps prevent obesity. (1)

Unstructured play provides many benefits for children including, but not limited to, the opportunity to

  • Create and explore their world
  • Develop new competencies that lead to improved confidence
  • Determine rules and develop social skills
  • Practice decision making

In addition, play helps children become better learners. Studies show that children’s self-regulation skills, concentration, creativity and problem solving, and ability to think about their own thoughts and the perspectives of others are developed and strengthened through play. Self-regulation skills are important for a child’s future academic and social success. (2)

Children’s free play is threatened in modern society. Video games, overfilled schedules, focus on academic achievement, and involvement in adult-directed sports leagues and classes sometimes take the place of creative play in children’s lives. (3)

A few main factors influencing the lack of time available for kids to have free play are listed below.

  • More families have a single head of household or two working parents, so fewer adults are available to supervise children’s play.
  • Parents often feel pressured to ensure their children’s academic success and to often have children involved in structured activities because this structure equates with “good parenting.”
  • Schools have responded to academic pressures by decreasing recess time and many afterschool programs also focus on academics, allowing less time for play.
  • Passive entertainment in front of screens has taken the place of active, outside play. Children are spending more time in front of screens, especially when parents believe screen time is educational.

All these pressures leave children less time available for unstructured play, both indoors and outdoors.

Despite these pressures, parents should be involved in helping children play for health’s sake–the health of the child, the health of the parents, and ultimately the health of the family as a whole. Play allows parents to engage with their children in a unique way, giving parents the opportunity to view the world from the child’s vantage point while demonstrating interest in the child’s perspective.

Studies show that for adults, play can help boost energy and vitality, improve resistance to disease, and trigger the release of endorphins which can promote well-being, temporarily relieve pain, and ward off stress and depression.

Some children might need help in learning how to engage in imaginative play. Studies show that young children are likely to play longer when an adult plays with themHere are some ideas of how you can play with your child and boost their development through play.

  • Give young children ample time for free play. Work and practice are important, but children should not be overscheduled to where they are not able to develop and grow through unstructured play. Try letting your child have at least 30 minutes (or start with 15 minutes) every day where the child is allowed to choose his or her own non-screen activity.
  • Help children by guided play, in addition to free play. Guided play is a term used by early childhood educators. It involves adults asking meaningful questions to help children learn through their play, build vocabulary and thinking skills. Adults follow the children’s lead and provide a scaffold, and offer just the right amount of help needed.
  • Provide open-ended toys. Researchers say that children benefit most from toys that make less choices for them. In other words, simple toys that children can use for symbolic play and pretend to be all kinds of things, like blocks and scarves, are better for children than things with one obvious purpose, such as a specific princess wand with sound. Open-ended toys allow children to develop the use of symbolic thought.
  • Encourage some, but not all, time be spent with other children by providing play dates and groups. Children develop social skills and self-regulation through learning to play well with other children.
  • Play with your children. Parents can support their children’s play by asking questions, being interested and engaged, and participating, especially for very young children. It is best to avoid leading the play or adding too many suggestions. As children work on math, reasoning, motor and other skills in play, avoid doing more for them than necessary.
  • Let play be child-directed. Encourage children to learn to form cooperative play scenarios they form together. Don’t set rules or determine how or what the child can do (within safety constraints, of course).

Playing with kids builds a bond that will last forever because when children are used to laughing and spending quality time with parents, they are more likely to share their thoughts and feelings on serious matters when they are older.

For more information on the importance of play for children and families, and for practical ideas on incorporating more playtime in your family’s life, please view the following ACPeds resources:

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1) Bongiorno, L. 10 things every parent should know about play. Retrieved from:

2) Whitebread, D., Coltman, P., Jameson, H., & Lander, R. (2009). Play, cognition and self-regulation: What exactly are children learning when they learn through play? Educational & Child Psychology, 26(2), 40-52.

3) Spiegel, A. (Feb. 28, 2008) Creative play makes for kids in control. Retrieved from:

4) Gronlund, G. (2013). How to support children’s approaches to learning? Play with them. Retrieved from:

5) Lin, Y., Yawkey, T. (2013). Does play matter to parents? Taiwanese parents’ perceptions of play. Education, 134(2), 244.

6) Nell, M. & Drew, W. Five essentials to meaningful play. Retrieved from:

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