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The Value of Children’s Play for Development


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Most of us have heard the expression, “Play is a child’s work.” But what does that really mean? Play is how children come to understand the world by using all their senses – touching, tasting, smelling, hearing, and seeing. Learning as they mix the batter, dig holes, explore a new texture, climb stairs, listen to classical music, crawl in tight spaces, and pour their own milk is key to child’s development. They are learning about how their bodies work as they push and pull, jump and stretch, stir and swirl, roll and stand very still. The world is their laboratory, whether six weeks or six years, in which to engage their whole bodies in exploration and discovery.

The Importance of Children’s Play for Development
As children play, they learn how to make friends. Allowing child’s play to happen with peers is a great way for parents to help children make friends. While children play with others, they learn about emotions – what makes other children happy or sad. They learn how to work together towards a goal. They learn about leading and following and being part of a group. They learn to accept kindness and what to do when someone is unkind, both important lessons to grasp.

Parten’s Stages of Play
An important part of children’s play is learning to interact with other children – learning to share, negotiate, lead, follow, listen, collaborate, plan, imagine, and show affection. In the 1930’s, a child development scholar, Mildred Parten, studied preschool children playing and developed descriptions of six stages of what a child’s play looks like. These playtime stages are still referred to in child development classes today to describe how children play with each other, becoming progressively more collaborative:

Unoccupied Play
Children just observe with no playing.

Solitary Play
Children play by themselves.

Onlooker Play
Children watch others play but do not join in.

Parallel Play
Children play side by side but don’t interact. They may watch each other and do the same things.

Associative Play
Children are playing together but not in an organized way. They are interacting but don’t appear to have a goal.

Cooperative Play
Children play together in an organized, coordinated way. They may take on roles (“You are it” or “I’ll be the monster.”), or each child may have a job (one child is responsible for building the tower for the sand castle; another builds the moat; another gets water to fill the moat, etc.)

Children will go back and forth between the stages, but as they get older, the more likely that they will engage in associative or cooperative play.

Parenting Tips for Improving Children’s Play Time

Children Need Open-Ended, Unscheduled Times to Explore and Discover
Learning happens most effectively with open-ended materials that can be used in multiple ways to nurture creativity in children. Try hands-on materials like blocks, LEGOS, sand, water, dirt, child-sized wheelbarrows, small shovels, ramps, balls, and so on. Sometimes the purpose of the object for children’s play is clear (like a doll is for holding and pretending to be a daddy). Sometimes the purpose of the object for playtime only becomes clear in the child’s creative hands – a stick could become a magic wand, the pole for a flag, something to stir with, or a pointer to show which way to go.

Child’s Play Time Can Be Enhanced By the Presence of a Caring Adult
Set aside an hour as often as you can each week to spend some quality play time with your child and do exactly what he or she wants to do. Your child leads the play time, and you follow. That means if your child wants you to sit in the sandbox with her, you do it. Or if he wants you to play the baby and he plays the mommy, you do it. Your presence enables another level of meaningful play to happen. Your child may use your attention to figure out a tough situation with a friend, re-enact a doctor’s visit where he got a shot, or try something she wouldn’t try on her own, like walking on a balance beam.

You may also want to help guide your child’s play while on a playdate or at the playground. Of course, we all want our children to move in the direction of associative and cooperative play, but that takes time. You can coach your child, “I see you looking at Aiden. Shall we go over and ask him if he’d like to climb with us?”

Children’s play is a rich opportunity for one’s development like learning new concepts and how to interact with others. Adults can follow a child’s lead or offer gentle guidance, but play is at its richest when children are in charge.

More from Bright Horizons on The Value of Children’s Play for Development:

• A playdate is a great idea to teach your kids how to play/interact with others. Find helpful resources and ideas for children’s playdates for hosting.
• Learn about the power of play and how it can impact your child’s success later on in life.
• Discover how pretend play helps children learn and get dramatic play activity ideas for at home or in the classroom.


Bright Horizonsbright-horizons-1-200 is the leading provider of high-quality early education and preschool. Their programs empower children from infancy on to become confident, successful learners and secure, caring people. They strive to grow young readers, scientists, artists, and explorers who are engaged and curious. Bright Horizons' programs invite children to approach school and academics with skills, confidence, and a drive for excellence.

More than just early education, Bright Horizons is a place to discover the joy of learning and the confidence to actively participate in the classroom setting. Children learn about their world in a community of families and teachers who work together to help every child uncover and nurture her full potential.

Connect with them to learn more about their infant, toddler, preschool and kindergarten prep programs, find a location near you, and schedule your personal visit: Online | Facebook | Twitter | Contact.


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