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Mental Health Blog

The Importance of Play in Early Child Development

June 20, 2022

smiling adult and child color

Playgrounds are more than places for children to “run off” energy before getting back to class or coming home for dinner. The playground, and any form of unstructured play, represent essential parts of a child’s early development.

Whether it’s a group of children playing a rowdy game of tag, two friends solving a puzzle together, or a child finding their strength on the monkey bars, children at play are learning fundamental social, leadership, problem-solving, and physical skills.

In this blog post, we’ll discuss the importance of play in helping children reach developmental and emotional milestones, and learning healthy social skills, problem-solving skills, and coping mechanisms.

How Can Parents Prioritize Play?

Play doesn’t have to look a certain way or include anything more than time, space, and freedom. In fact, when children aren’t given special toys or prizes to play with, they tap into their imagination to explore ideas, create, and challenge themselves.

Be Playful Yourself!

Children often model their parents behavior, and they’ll pick up on your attitude when it comes to play. Smile, laugh, and have fun engaging in the activity!

Why is Play Important for Children’s Development?

Play Fosters Cognitive Growth

Play is the first opportunity for children to discover and engage in the world on their own. Giving children the time and space to create their own games, and rules of the game, can improve brain function, confidence, independence, and language skills.

Play strengthens and increases neutral connections in the prefrontal cortex of the brain- the pathways that we use for thinking. Without play, the neurons aren’t developing.

Firing up the neurons in the prefrontal cortex of a child’s brain plays a major role in regulating emotions, making plans and solving problems, and engaging with other children.

Play Nurtures Mindfulness

When children engage in an activity, losing track of time and turning off distractions, they’re practicing mindfulness.

The practice of bringing an open attitude to the present moment, and focusing on the activity at hand, can foster groundedness and calmness, and improve self-awareness, empathy, and behavioral coping skills.

Play Fosters Creativity

At play, children create their own reality. Children need time and space to stretch their imagination- play make-believe, make their own rules, and share their games with their friends.

Materials without a single use such as sand, blocks, water, dirt, cardboard, pencils can nurture creativity in children.

Play Encourages Independence

Play doesn’t always need to be social. In fact, it can be an opportunity for children to make their own decisions, set their own rules, and create their own reality.

When children are given free-time to play, not knowing what activity will be next, they will force themselves to try something new. They’ll figure out what they like and dislike, and work harder to develop their coordination and motor skills on an activity they enjoy.

Play Builds Healthy Communication Skills

Children learn valuable communication skills when they’re at play. Whether it’s introducing themselves to new friends at the playground, or teaching their sibling the rules of their game, children learn to develop their social skills at play.

The playground often consists of children of different ages and physical abilities. Children will learn to communicate who plays with who, and at what level. These benefits can be seen later in life, when children need to communicate with students in different grade levels and coworkers.

Play Builds Healthy Bodies

In contrast to passive activities, like watching television, play builds active, strong, and healthy bodies. Physical play inspires children to explore, understand, and challenge their body.

Activities like climbing and running can facilitate gross motor skills and coordination, particularly in young children.

Physical Play Helps Children:

  • Improve movement control
  • Improve motor skills
  • Sharpen reflexes
  • Build strong muscles
  • Improve bone density
  • Increase cardiovascular function
  • Build balance
  • Form friendships
  • Have fun!

The Takeaway

While it might seem obvious that children need playtime to release stored energy and make friendships, the mental, physical, and emotional effects of play on young children are far-reaching. Play is as much part of healthy development in children as eating vegetables, taking care of their hygiene, and getting plenty of rest.

About The Author

Nettie Hoagland Headshot

Nettie Hoagland is a writer with experience in local news reporting and nonprofit communications and community development. She earned her bachelor of arts degree in Media Studies, Journalism, and Digital Arts from Saint Michael’s College. Nettie is a believer in the healing power of the arts to create connection and community. She is passionate about using writing and storytelling as an instrument for personal and social growth in the field of mental health. Nettie is endlessly curious about all things mental and behavioral health.