The Importance of Play for Child Development

Children build skills through play. Playing can develop physical, social, language, emotional, and cognitive skills. It is important to remember that every child will develop these skills at their own rate, but there are ways you can help your child learn these new abilities.

Understand the different types of play:

Unoccupied play: Unoccupied play is when a child isn’t really playing, just observing. The child may be moving randomly or standing still.

Solitary play: Solitary play refers to a child playing alone. This is usually seen in younger children who may be shy or lack communication skills. They are usually unaware of or uninterested in what other children around may be doing.

Onlooker play: This type of play occurs when the child simply watches others play. It is common in younger children who are still developing their vocabulary.

Parallel play: Parallel play takes place when a child is playing beside another child without interacting. Although they are playing alone, they might observe and possibly imitate each other.

Imitative play: Imitative play refers to a child copying your actions, or the actions of another child. Imitating other children is an important first step toward interacting with them.

Social play: In social play, children are usually still playing separately from each other but are involved in what other children are doing. They may be sharing toys or speaking to each other about their activities, but are not playing together.

Cooperative play: Cooperative play is usually seen in preschoolers. When a child is playing with other children and working together to achieve something. Playing house, building a block tower, or playing tag are examples of cooperative play.


How can parents support skill development in toddlers through play?

Provide a variety of types of play for your child. Allow them to play with other children to develop social skills, like sharing, saying please and thank you, and cooperating. Encourage active play to develop physical skills, such as how to crawl, climb, walk, or run. Try to provide a mix of active and quiet play each day. Remember that imitative play could mean copying household chores you are doing; allow them to help fold laundry or clean up if they show interest. Get outside and explore; point out “tree” and “bird” and anything else you might see, and help your child interact with the environment by running and climbing.

Introduce different types of toys. Keep safety in mind always – no small objects that fit into your child’s mouth. Toys should be age appropriate as well. Age 6-12 months is a good time to introduce stacking bowls, balls, and blocks. Household objects like Tupperware or a bowl and spoon are also good options. Messy play is fun and educational; give your child some playdough, make edible finger paint, or allow some cups in the bath for water play. Open-ended toys, such as dress-up clothes, trucks, dolls, and blocks help with development as they require your child to use their imagination.

Limit available toys. When introducing a new toy, put another one away. Don’t overwhelm your child with too many choices. Fewer toys with more variety is more beneficial than lots of complicated toys.

Read with your child. Reading develops language skills and imagination. Start with books with lots of pictures of objects you can name for your child. Repetition of the same books encourages your child to remember the words of the objects and will reinforce language development more than lots of different books.

Make time for play. Scheduling play time seems silly, but in most families, the days are full of activities. Unstructured free play time is important to allow your child to become “bored” and then think of a way to overcome that boredom. Be available to play with your child during this time as well; no cell phones or screen time.

Lead by example, then let your child be the boss. Introduce a new game, like rolling a ball back and forth, or stacking Lego, to show your child how to use a toy in a new way. Allow your child to explore this new game and direct future activities. Letting them learn to lead is an important skill to develop.

What do children learn through play?

  • Listening to music helps them learn patterns and develops hearing
  • Dancing develops coordination, balance, and movement
  • Nursery rhymes develop memory and language skills
  • Drawing and painting develops creativity and emotional skills
  • Outdoor play develops physical skills as well as encourages healthy lifestyle habits
  • Playing with blocks develops hand-eye coordination, concentration, creativity, and concepts such as balance, cause and effect, and understanding shapes
  • Dramatic play develops attention, story writing skills, and cooperation

Provide a wide range of open-ended toys and time for your child to explore them. The more often you allow free play, the longer your child will be able to engage in it. Take play time seriously and aim for a mix of active and quiet activities to develop your child’s skills and abilities.

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