You and your Child : The Importance of Play (part 1) - Where does play stop and learning begin?

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All young creatures learn through play, and children are no exception. Toddlers are naturally curious and will interpret their world using all their senses, learning all the time from their experiences. Their instinct for discovery is naturally expressed through playfulness and doesn’t need to be forced.

“There is a time for directed play (leading your child to follow your instructions), but children must be allowed to explore and learn from experience, too.”

Children are amazing. They think of the most extraordinary things and have so much to say, but to truly understand them, we need to give them our time. Playtime is your toddler’s route to rehearsing life’s survival skills, and is also the perfect time for you to get to know each other better. Play at this age needs a lightness of touch and should be a time of great fun and laughter. A toddler’s brain has not yet developed enough to understand complex instructions and explanations (see Stages of brain development). Simple guidelines and easy outcomes will be enough to stimulate interest.

Playing with your child regularly will help you get to know her in a deeply intimate and instinctive way that will serve your relationship well for life—it is essential for her development.

Play will help your child to:

  • Develop imagination and nurture creativity.

  • Try new things and develop self-confidence.

  • Manage emotions (in a safe environment), by experiencing frustration, success, disappointment, and enjoyment.

  • Develop problem-solving skills and reasoning ability.

  • Build physical strength and competence.

  • Develop motor skills, such as coordination, movement, and balance.

  • Develop cognitive skills, such as planning, problem solving, memory, and testing a theory—for example, “If I hide teddy, will he still be there later?”

  • Develop social skills and eventually develop friendships.

  • Encourage language development.

Parents are often surprised when they learn that the solution to their toddlers’ behavior problems is to increase the amount of time they play with them. Little ones of this age are very attached to their parent figure—you are likely to be their favorite playmate—and will do anything to gain attention, even if the attention is negative. The advantage of playtime is that a child does not need to “act out” to get quality attention.

Learning from grandad

Your own parents may have more time than you to play with your toddler. This level of attention can lead to a very special bond developing between grandparents and grandchildren.


Picture books help language development, reinforce memory, and stimulate the imagination. Your child will love to look at the same pictures again and again.

Getting stronger

Energetic play is physically demanding, so it’s great for tiring out your lively toddler, and it will strengthen her muscles and keep her body healthy.

Where does play stop and learning begin?

So, why do children play, and exactly what purpose does it serve? For a child, it is probably obvious: children play for the sheer joy of it! They love freedom of movement, fun and laughter, imagining things, making new discoveries, and the feeling of being secure in their environment. The boundary between exploration and play is indefinable, and children will generally learn new skills and information far more easily if they are enjoying the task and thinking of it as playtime.

Play is about much more than “pretending”; it is about exploring and learning new skills vital to physical and emotional health. Play teaches that communication can be fun and motivates children to learn to communicate in other ways, too. It is through play that children first come to understand that objects can represent other things (for example, an empty packing box can become a boat, a house, a car). The ability to make associations and to use imagination is at the heart of learning language.

Types of play

Different styles of play are vital to encourage gross and motor skill development and to encourage creative, social, mental, physical, and imaginative development:

Mental play

Your child’s cognitive skills develop through mental play. This includes language play, number rhymes, songs, and playing with different shapes and textures. Preschool children have a wonderful sense of the absurd, but their understanding of word play and humor evolves over time.

Creative play

This involves your child’s fine motor skills and includes activities such as drawing, painting, sticking things, model building, and playing with play-doh and construction toys. This kind of play works wonderfully in partnership with the skills needed for mental play to help your child understand the connections between sounds and words and pictures.

Physical play

Movement helps the body and brain to develop normally. The patterns that are put in place now will have an impact on your child’s development and metabolism for life. Running, jumping, walking, climbing, hopping, and play fighting are all examples of physical play. Swimming is also an appropriate form of play from an early age. Children who do not get enough exercise and stimulation through play will look for it elsewhere, by running around the house or “acting out.”

Imaginative play

Children age three and upward have fertile and boundless imaginations. They can transform themselves into a “character” in an instant, will love to dress up, and may find the boundaries between fantasy and reality hard to distinguish on occasion. Imaginative play is closely linked to role play. Your child will love to copy those around her, especially the significant adults in her life, and will also be influenced by any older siblings, and other strong characters. Like many parents, you may at some point be embarrassed to hear your own words and behavior echoed by your young toddler! Early role play is at the root of learning important social and life skills.

Social play

Through play your child will learn to cooperate and empathize with others. Play develops instinctively and spontaneously and leads to the development of essential skills that she needs for socialization and survival in later life. The good news is that playtime provides many of the things that your adult brain needs, too. All too often we forget how to relax and have fun when overwhelmed by the stresses and strains of everyday life—so give yourself a break and reconnect with your own childhood playtime as you unwind with your toddler.

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