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Play: Key to Learning

By Deborah Johnson & Stephen P. Demanchick

Play is a natural and universal act for children. It is an inherent part of children’s lives that allows for fun and relaxation while serving to support development and learning. Children’s fantasy or symbolic play, for example, often serves to help a youngster cope with the demands and pressures of the adult world. In The Hurried Child, Dr. David Elkind reminds us how important play is for children in our world. He writes that “… play is nature’s way of dealing with stress for children as well as adults…. As parents, we can help by investing in toys and playthings that give the greatest scope to the child’s imagination” (Elkind, 2001, p. 197).

Play and Development

Play serves various roles across different geographic, economic, cultural, and social settings and enhances children’s intellectual, emotional, social, creative, and physical development. In early development, curiosity or exploratory play allow opportunities for young children to move freely about in a safe environment. As children become interested in novel experiences and situations, they must learn and master the skills that help them in exploring their surrounding world.

As children grow and better develop basic gross motor and cognitive skills, play changes form and assists development in other ways. For 4-year-olds, social play promotes increased mastery of language skills as they communicate needs and desires. For 6-year-olds, more complex language, motor, and cognitive skills are enhanced by play that includes organized games, fantasy or symbolic games that use creative expression, and activities such as drawing or model building to develop fine motor skills. These examples illustrate the importance of play to children’s learning. Through play with others, children learn to negotiate, solve problems, and communicate. Make-believe play, whether alone or with others, helps youngsters to imagine and create new games and ideas as well as to express thoughts and feelings that may be difficult or painful to verbalize to friends or adults. For example, in a therapeutic setting, children act out situations through puppets or dolls that closely mimic real life situations. In these instances, children often have the chance to devise different endings, solutions, or plans for how to deal with a difficult situation.

Play that is creative, spontaneous, and self-initiated is critical. According to the Family Education Network, current popular toys of media figures or video game characters tend to overly structure children’s play. Battery-operated or electronic devices may be fun but often leave little possibility for creative expression and social interaction. The Family Education Network suggests that parents will help their children by selecting toys that offer valuable development opportunities. For example, paints or art supplies, empty boxes, egg cartons, and puppets can become fun toys to stimulate a child’s imagination. This is not to say that children should only be allowed to play with these types of toys. A combination is best. This will give children more opportunities to imagine, create, and explore new ideas.

Key Strategies to Enhance the Value of Play

Take time to observe your child’s play. This will give you the opportunity to learn about your child’s motor, language, and cognitive development. With infants, watch how they pick up a rattle or how they hold a ball. You will discover how toddlers categorize objects. When you watch your children at play, you will be amazed how they perceive the world and those around them. Watch how they play house or play school. Watch your child handling frustration and reaching resolution. Think how important this will be later in life.

Let your child play without you. Sometimes play should be just for children. Allow your child to choose activities that seem fun and pleasurable. This will enhance development of autonomy and self-direction as your child freely makes choices about what to play with and how to play. This is not to say that you need to give up your role as parent by relinquishing all decisions to your child. Rather, look for opportunities where your child can make safe and developmentally appropriate choices that encourage independence. For example, painting a picture of a dog using green paint may seem unrealistic to an adult, but, for a child, this may be an important way to be creative and independent.

Give room to play. Give not only physical space but give noise space. Let children move their bodies, laugh, be loud, be messy, and be quiet. It is giving the range of space that helps children understand boundaries and limits.

Create opportunities for free play. Make sure that your child has as much time as possible each week for free play. This might include playing a board game, running outside, going to the park, building a fort, dressing up, or playing make believe. Supply, when possible, generic play items such as empty boxes, egg cartons, art materials, or even pie tins to enhance creativity and opportunities for play.

Go battery/electricity free for a day. Since we live in an age when many of today’s toys are battery operated or electric, suggest play days where these toys are not used. Instead, encourage your child to put on a play, play a board game, write a story, build a fort, draw, anything that does not involve batteries or electricity. Volunteer to join with your child so that the whole family can be involved. Primarily, activities such as these help to offer children a way to play creatively and make decisions about how they play.

Play with your child. If you really want to know your kids, you have to play with them. Play between parents and their children is essential in developing children’s feelings of attachment, security, and connectedness. Your child needs your time. After all, your child’s primary form of communication very well may be play, so get involved if they want you to. Remember, though, that you are the adult and your child is the child, and this is your child’s time.

Let your child lead. Remember, if your child wants you to play, play as a partner, not the play leader. Have your child tell you what to do and be aware of when your child does not want you there. This is not a time to instruct your child. Nor is it the time for you to be in charge. Reflect your child’s feeling and reinforce efforts to try something different. Above all, support your child.


Through play, children explore the world around them, imagine alternatives, solve problems individually or with others, learn how to negotiate, learn how to express their feelings, and learn to be creative.


Elkind, D. (2001). The hurried child (3rd ed.). Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Mayesky, M. (2002). Creative activities for young children. New York: Thomson Learning.


Family Education Network, www.familyeducation.com

Institute for Play, www.instituteforplay.com

National Association for the Education of Young Children, www.naeyc.org

Adapted from Helping Children at Home and School II: Handouts for Families and Educators, NASP, 2004

Deborah Johnson, NCSP, is Director of Community Services for the Children’s Institute and National Director of the Primary Mental Health Project in Rochester, NY. She does extensive training in adapting play therapy to the school setting and implementing mental health prevention and promotion programs in schools.
Stephen P. Demanchick is a research assistant at the Children’s Institute and Scholar at the University of Rochester.