Discover the Crucial Importance of Play in Child Development

By Paula McLaren •  Updated: 12/07/20 •  13 min read  •  Toddler » Toddler Play

In today’s post, I’m going to share with you the importance of play in child development!

It may seem trivial… but play is the most underrated development tool you have got as a parent! 

And no… I’m not kidding.

I created this post a handy guide-book (if you will…) packed full of useful knowledge, tips and activities that I’ve collected over 40 years of being a nanny and mother to help YOU get the most out of your little one and help them grow and thrive into healthy, happy, confident people!

Ready to get started? Great!

Why Is Play Important In Early Childhood Education?

That word play, it’s a great word. 

It conjures up feelings of fun and freedom. 

Even as adults we love to play, we enjoy team games, card games, crosswords and quizzes. We like to paint, do pottery or do gardening. We never really stop learning through play.

So why is play important in early childhood education? 

Well, play for the young is the cornerstone of how they begin to understand the world around them. 

Playing allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, physical, cognitive, and emotional strength. Play is also important to healthy brain development and in early childhood, playing it is how children explore, investigate and interpret the world around them and begin to understand human emotions and relationships. 

Play helps develop their social & communication skills, their cognitive development and their powers of reasoning. 

It helps to nurture a child’s imagination and by playing, they learn how to share, work with others and solve problems. 

In addition to all this, a child’s sense of self-worth and faith in his or her own abilities are greatly influenced by play and how we interact with them.

So, the importance of play in child development and a child’s learning can not be underestimated and it is up to us, as parents and carers, to provide a safe and nourishing play environment in which the children in their care can best play and learn.

6 Reasons Why Play Is Important

Some of the most important reasons why play is so important to healthy development are that:

  1. It is how children explore their world
  2. Improves social skills
  3. It helps with concentration
  4. Encourages creativity and imagination
  5. It develops language skills
  6. Helps with problem-solving

What Are The Important Features Of Play?

Successful and nurturing play should be:

Click Here to jump to my favourite activities for babies, toddlers and preschoolers!

What Are The Benefits Of Play?

Play in the early years has many benefits.

It is the core of how children learn and develop across the board.

Play also increases their self-worth, nurtures their inquisitiveness and develops their imagination and creativity.

What Are The Emotional And Social Benefits Of Play?

On an emotional and social level, play teaches children how to share, mix with others and take turns. 

It can help children to learn how to deal with frustrations and has been proven to reduce anxiety. 

Play can be a form of self-expression too. So when children paint or draw and have successful play experiences like building a tall tower out of blocks, for example, it can help build confidence.

Why Is Free Play So Important?

The importance of play in child development is crucial to development, however their development it is not only achieved with structured activities that us, as parents and carers, provide. 

Free play is also essential to children’s development as they will often find unusual ways of doing things. 

For example, painting is not just for brushes… if your child wants to get messy and use their hands, let them have fun and experiment!

As a result, it is important to observe and encourage but not to take over as children learn with all their senses. 

It’s important to remember that… one type of play designed to encourage a certain skill may very easily lead to another.

Why Is Outdoor Play Important For Children’s Development?

Outdoor play is ESSENTIAL for children’s development. Not just physically, but also mentally.

The physical benefits of play are many and we should encourage our children from an early age to enjoy playing outside. 

Here they can learn about their environment, develop gross motor skills and engage in more boisterous play not suitable for indoors such as ball games and playing in a paddling pool, for example. 

This means your little one will have far more opportunities to run, jump, climb and perfect their balance while outdoors. And strengthening muscles and developing coordination are all important for your toddler’s development as well as instilling in them a love for the outdoors.

With greater freedom of movement when outside, gross motor skills can be practised and experienced to the full and will give your children more confidence in their physical abilities.

As well as the physical benefits of outdoor play, exposure to sunlight helps the body produce vitamin D which promotes healthy brain, bone and muscle development. 

Even on cloudy days sunlight can work its magic!

How Does Outdoor Play Help Emotional Development?

Outdoor play can also help enhance your little one’s sensory and emotional development as they learn to touch, observe and listen to the world around them.

Point out birdsong or the sound of the wind in the trees, watch raindrops falling into a bucket of water, walk barefoot on the grass, blow dandelion seeds and watch them float away on the breeze.

All these things are opening your child’s eyes to the wonder of the world around them while encouraging sensory development, curiosity, increased vocabulary and the beginnings of scientific concepts.

You begin to instil an interest in the natural world and develop your child’s awareness of their place within that world. 

This emotional growth about a child’s responsibility and care for the planet is a wonderful outcome from playing outside and consequently, I always praise parents who teach their children about nature and the big, beautiful world around them!

Why Is Risk Important In Play?

Taking risks is a natural part of growing up.

Toddlers, children and teenagers all test boundaries to see how far they can push themselves with risk-taking.

It is natural as parents to want to protect our children but in today’s age of extreme health and safety, sometimes we can sometimes become too protective.

And as a result, our children never get the opportunity to feel that little thrill of climbing a tree or jumping off a log. This is removing a vital component of their development! 

Toddlers and young children who are allowed to take small but safe risks are far more likely to deal with frightening situations in other areas of life as they grow up as they know that you’ll be there for them in the end, just as you have always been.

So, as long as the risks are age-appropriate and you are at hand to ensure they do not hurt themselves, encourage your children to push the boundaries physically and take risks.

Offering Opportunities To Play And Learn

As young children are learning all the time through play, it is important that as parents and carers we provide them with plenty of opportunities to play. 

Children in early childhood learn and develop new skills through listening, looking, touching, tasting, exploring and experimenting and finally through talking and questioning.

To enable our children to flourish in all developmental areas it is important that they have the following opportunities to…


Remember this… 

As parents, we must make sure our children are having fun when they play and never feel pressurised.

Do not push a child to play or participate in a certain activity if they do not want to. 

Children develop in their own time and at their own pace, so be patient and try not to compare your child to their peers.

I will also say this…

Children Develop Away From Games Too

I know I’ve been stressing the importance of play in child development.

And don’t get me wrong… It 100% is. 

However, it is EQUALLY as important to include your children into your everyday life and let them experience your day with you. Learning how to operate within the ‘real’ world is vitally crucial to young children’s development.

There is a balance between over-stimulating and under-stimulating your children with activities and a balance between ‘structured development time’ (activities) and ‘free development time’ (being a part of your life) that will be your hidden gem to unlocking your child’s development potential.

Children will all learn and grow at different rates, however, most children follow trends with how their play activities develop, so…

What Are The Six Stages Of Play?

There are 6 main stages of play which you will see in developing children. They are:

  1. Unoccupied Play
  2. Solitary Play
  3. Onlooker Play
  4. Parallel Play
  5. Associative Play
  6. Cooperative Play

Check out this handy infographic for more details about each stage of play to see where your child is currently at!

6 Stages Of Play Graphic

Alongside the 6 stages of play, there are 6 different types of play too!

What Are The 6 Types Of Play In Child Development? 

  1. Physical Play
  2. Social Play
  3. Constructive Play
  4. Imaginative Play
  5. Free Play
  6. Play With Rules / Boundaries (older children)

As with many things when raising a child, all aspects of play are equally important to a well-rounded development. 

In many cases, one area of play can lead to another area of play and the categories are often interlinked. 

For instance, drawing or painting involves fine motor skills, creativity and patience. 

No category works in isolation. 

Therefore, ensuring you offer your child a variety of age-appropriate play opportunities is essential.

The best option for you, as a parent, is to find activities that you know support certain developmental areas and mix and match them throughout the week.

You must also ensure you are giving enough play opportunities (but not too many!) to help your precious little one grow up to be the best they can be! And by doing all this, you will ensure you’re giving your child the very best start in life that you can!

Below are a few of my favourite activities for all children from birth to preschool to get you started!

Newborn And Baby Play Ideas

Babies and young children learn to play whilst interacting with everyday items. From fingers and toes, to their toys in their crib, they are always learning. 

For babies, the feeling of their soft toys and the noise they can make when shaking a rattle, is teaching them something about their world. 

At this point, they rely on their parents and carers to provide them with toys to stimulate their development

We have to bring the toys to them and ensure that they are given the best opportunities to learn through play by offering them age-appropriate toys that are stimulating.

Here Are A Couple Of My Favourite 1st Year Baby Activities:

Type Of PlayRecommended Activity
Physical PlayTummy Time
Social PlayNursery Rhymes
Constructive PlayLarge Building Blocks
Imaginative PlayWater and Sand Play
Free PlayPlaying in Autumn Leaves
Play With RulesHide and Seek

Once babies can sit and crawl, their developmental skills allow them to explore the world around them. 

As a result, they will enjoy placing one block on top of another, rolling balls, banging things together and filling and emptying containers. 

Repetition is the KEY to their play and learning at this point. 

They will never get tired of dropping something on the floor and watching you pick it up again and again, as they realise that their actions make you react. 

Toddler Play Activities

As they grow up, your young toddler will enjoy imitating and copying everyday tasks that they see you doing. The importance of play in child development cannot be underestimated at this age!

They will love to take part in your daily routine and their thirst for knowledge is insatiable. 

At this stage, your young child’s language and cognitive abilities will also be developing at a rapid rate, so interaction with you and lots of chat are extremely important as you participate in their learning through play

Physical play becomes hugely important at this stage and they will need time and space to let off steam outside as well as learning to sit and concentrate for short periods with puzzles and books. 

Now is the ideal time to introduce more structured activities to help with their development and understanding of the world around them.

Here Are A Couple Of My Favourite 2-3 Year Old Toddler Activities:

Type Of PlayRecommended Activity
Physical PlayRide on Toys
Social PlayBaking with Mum & Dad
Constructive PlaySorting Games
Imaginative PlayPlay Dough
Free PlayGlueing and Sticking
Play With RulesMatching Card Games

Preschool Play Activities

By three years old, your child is learning to play with their peers and will actively seek out the company of other children. It is also at this stage that they will start to enjoy pretend play too.

Here Are A Couple Of My Favourite Preschool Activities:

Type Of PlayRecommended Activity
Physical PlayClimbing Games
Physical PlayBat and Ball
Social PlayChinese Whispers
Constructive PlayCutting and Sticking – 2D and 3D
Imaginative PlayBlanket Fort
Imaginative PlayPretend Play
Free PlayFeed the Birds
Play With RulesMemory Games

So there you have it!

My complete resource to help you understand the importance of play in child development!

Be sure to include a variety of activities into your little one’s life to give them a well-rounded selection of development opportunities!

Also remember… include your children in your life! They will learn so much from being with you and experiencing the world as it is. 

Now get out there and play! 

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Paula McLaren

Paula McLaren - Norland Nurse NNEB RSH is the founder of Teething to Tantrums and has been in the childcare industry as a Norland Nanny since 1982. Since then, her mission has been to help parents become the best they can possibly be. And each year, she continues to help more families understand their child's development, the trials and joys of parenting and of course, how to care for their little ones.

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