Play is generally defined as activity engaged in for enjoyment, pleasure, or recreation, but, for an infant or toddler, play is an integral part of promoting healthy development! Children learn through play, and play provides sensory, physical, cognitive, and emotional experiences that help build connections in their brains.
Play Promotes Skill Development
Your child is constantly watching you and the world around them and absorbing your actions and those of others. You can purposefully model interactions and teach through your interactions, and playing with your child makes doing so fun! You can use strategies during play interactions with your child to encourage and support skill development in several areas, such as the following:
- Teach your child communication skills by helping them learn new words and calmly express feelings through words, gestures, and facial expressions.
- Focus on literacy skills and academic readiness through activities like counting, shape identification, and singing the alphabet song.
- Incorporate motor-skill development by playing games that include hand-eye coordination, like catching a ball, or grasping and moving objects.
- Find ways to model and teach social-emotional skills like sharing, waiting patiently for one’s turn, and managing frustration.
- Provide opportunities for your child to make choices and work on developing their problem-solving skills.
- Explore your child’s curiosity and creativity through activities like imaginative storytelling.
Play Strengthens Attachment and Attunement
Play also provides an opportunity for you to demonstrate to your child aspects that are important for healthy attachment such unconditional love; safety; that they are heard, seen, and valued; and that they will be comforted and supported when needed (Brown & Elliott, 2016).
Consider this example. A parent and toddler are enjoying putting together a simple puzzle of animal-shaped pieces; while fitting the pieces into the puzzle, they are giggling as they make silly animal sounds. When the child becomes frustrated by not being able to fit a piece, the parent patiently reassures the child with gentle words and a loving touch. In this simple example, the loving interaction with this parent comforted the child and built skills for emotional regulation.
In addition, play gives you opportunities to share your culture and values. By doing this, you can help build your child’s sense of belonging while also molding pro-social beliefs (e.g., respect for diversity, compassion, honesty).
Furthermore, play creates opportunities to observe what your child is experiencing and expressing. It allows you to increase your attunement to your child, which means you can better recognize, understand, and engage with their inner thoughts and feelings. Parents and caregivers can learn so much about their children during play when they make an effort to notice! You can learn the following about your child if you purposely observe your child and their behaviors during play:
- personality traits (e.g., sensitive, persistent, cautious, agreeable, optimistic)
- temperament (e.g., activity/energy level, reactivity, adaptability)
- interests (e.g., trains, dinosaurs)
- likes and dislikes (e.g., song or book preferences, what frustrates the child)
- signals and emotional cues (e.g., rubs eyes when tired)
- preferred ways to be calmed and soothed (e.g., rocked, hugged)
Engage in Different Types of Play
There are different types of play, and each type provides interaction opportunities for connection, communications, affection, modeling, and teaching. For example, during constructive play, a child constructs, shapes, or builds something (e.g., using building blocks), and this type of play builds fine motor and problem-solving skills. Other types of play build social skills such as cooperative play (e.g., building sandcastles together) and competitive play (e.g., playing a board game). Imagination is sparked with dramatic or fantasy play (e.g., child acts out situations and roles with a puppet) or symbolic play (e.g., using a cardboard box as a house, drinking water from a play tea set). Some play is cognitively focused like language play (e.g., rhyming words), while other play is physical and builds gross- or fine-motor skills like functional play (e.g., using a toy vacuum) or physical play (e.g., throwing a ball).
Be Purposeful in Playful Interactions
It may take some practice to become comfortable with playing as play can be unstructured, repetitive, and even messy! Sometimes, parents or caregivers might select an activity with the intent of teaching their child, such as playing a game in which they match shapes. Other times, parents and caregivers can let their child take the lead! Their child will be learning verbal and social skills as the parent or caregiver follows along – talking with the child but not giving directives. Below are sample play and interaction activities you can try:
- Get on your child’s level, and engage in floor play (e.g., put together a floor puzzle, stack blocks)
- Read books together
- Play simple games (e.g., what sounds do animals make, guess items in a bag by touch)
- Sing silly songs
- Facilitate exploration (e.g., find different types of fruit at the grocery store)
- Play with tactile toys and expressive materials (e.g., water, sand, paint, playdough)
- Make helping a game (e.g., match colored socks)
- Find enrichment in your environment (e.g., go to the library, take a nature walk)
- Be playful in simple daily activities (e.g., sing a song while dressing)
- Set up a child-friendly cabinet with items (e.g., plastic bowls and spoons), and engage your child in stacking, banging, and shaking the items
- Play imitation games (e.g., gesture rhymes like Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes)
- Fill an album with photos of family and friends, and play a game to find specific people
- Use a mirror to explore facial features and expressions (e.g., Where is your nose?)
- Be physically active (e.g., playground, swimming pool, indoor obstacle course)
- Count, sort, or match items (e.g., count the number of toy cars)
Communicate with Care During Play
How parents and caregivers interact during play is as important as the activities they chose to play. During play, your words and actions can communicate to your child that they are loved, valued, and supported, and you can teach them new vocabulary, how to make decisions, and how to socialize with others (e.g., taking turns). With each interaction, you build their skills and self-esteem! Try these strategies:
- Give loving and nurturing touches during activities (e.g., rub your child’s back)
- Name objects and their characteristics (e.g., colors, textures, tastes)
- Use gestures (e.g., point to an item) to help a child connect names with objects
- Provide explanations for actions (e.g., The doll is hungry, so I am going to feed her with this bottle.)
- Comment on what a child is doing (e.g., You picked a bright yellow crayon for coloring.)
- Ask open-ended questions (e.g., Where will you park the car?)
- Expand on a child’s vocabulary with descriptive words (e.g., building words like “over” and “under”)
- Offer praise for effort (e.g., You worked so hard to build that tall block tower!)
- Use constructive language (e.g., please do this vs. don’t do that)
- Avoid criticism, blame, and shame
When to Stop Playing
Play boosts children’s healthy development and can be part of meeting recommended physical activity requirements. Although infants need about 30 minutes a day of “tummy time” or interactive play and toddlers need about 3 hours total of physical activity each day (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2020), you should monitor your child’s energy and attention levels during play as children can grow tired of interacting or may need time to process and reflect on their learning. The following are some signs that a young child may need some rest from the stimulation of play:
- Crying or making fussy sounds
- Rubbing or closing eyes
- Arching back
- Turning away
- Clenching fists and/or waving arms and kicking
- Throwing tantrums
- Refusing to continue or fulfill simple requests
- Struggling to use words to convey feelings
Infants and toddlers grow quickly. Cherish this time of playful fun! Through play, you are helping your child to understand how to interact, that they have an impact on objects and other people, and to be a creative problem solver. While having fun, you are laying a foundation for your child’s future relationships, learning, and success!
American Academy of Pediatrics
National Association for the Education of Young Children
American Academy of Pediatrics. (2020, August 5). Making physical activity a way of life: AAP policy explained. healthychildren.org. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/healthy-living/fitness/Pages/Making-Fitness-a-Way-of-Life
Brown, D. P., & Elliott, D. S. (2016). Attachment disturbances in adults: Treatment for comprehensive repair. W.W. Norton.
Ginsberg, K. R., Committee on Communications, & the Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health. (2007). The importance of play in promoting healthy child development and maintaining strong parent-child bonds. Pediatrics, 119(1), 182-191. https://publications.aap.org/pediatrics/article/119/1/182/70699/The-Importance-of-Play-in-Promoting-Healthy-Child
Milteer, R. M., Ginsburg, K. R., Council on Communications and Media Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health, Mulligan, D. A., Ameenuddin, N., Brown, A., Christakis, D. A., Cross, C., Falik, H. L., Hill, D. L., Hogan, M. J., Levine, A. E., O’Keeffe, G. S., & Swanson, W. S. (2012). The importance of play in promoting healthy child development and maintaining strong parent-child bond: Focus on children in poverty. Pediatrics, 129(1), e204-e213. https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2011-2953