How play helps children's development

Playing is a natural and enjoyable way for children to keep active, stay well and be happy. Freely chosen play helps children and young people’s healthy development. To have good physical and mental health and to learn life skills, they need various unstructured play opportunities from birth until they’re teenagers.

Freely chosen play

Freely chosen play is when a child decides and controls their play following their own instincts, imagination and interests.  They play without being led by adults. There’s no right or wrong way to play. Freely chosen play improves children’s health, well-being and development. 

Why play is important

Play improves the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and young people. Through play, children learn about the world and themselves. They also learn skills they need for study, work and relationships such as:

  • confidence
  • self-esteem
  • resilience
  • interaction
  • social skills
  • independence
  • curiosity
  • coping with challenging situations

Developing physical health through play

Physical play such as running, skipping and riding a bicycle helps children develop:

  • good physical fitness
  • agility
  • stamina
  • co-ordination
  • balance

Developing social skills through play

Playing can help children develop their social skills with others. By listening, paying attention and sharing play experiences, this helps a child:

  • explore their feelings
  • develop self-discipline
  • learn how to express themselves
  • work out emotional aspects of life

Playful parenting

Through play, parents can connect fully with their children and have fun.  A parent or carer can support and take part in their child’s play activities but they shouldn’t direct what happens. It’s important they give their children time, freedom and choice to play. If an adult makes all the decisions about how, what and when their child plays, the child won’t enjoy their play experiences.

Play and challenge

Children often want to create challenge and uncertainty in their play. Through risky, challenging play, children test themselves and find out their own limits. They learn how to deal with risk through play and can use these same skills later in life.

Parents should encourage their children from birth to extend themselves. Teach them basic skills including:

  • riding a bicycle
  • swimming
  • road safety

Explain that it’s important to learn from mistakes, to try again and to believe in themselves.  Help them understand their limits and their boundaries. Allow them to have fun in their play.

Play and digital technology

To make sure children have time for unstructured, freely chosen play every day, parents should limit screen time. The younger the child, the less time they should be using digital devices.

Keep certain times and areas in the home technology-free zones such as:

  • meals
  • when outdoors
  • before bed
  • bedrooms

Don’t use digital devices to distract your children or keep them quiet. Talk to your children, play games or look at a book together. Join in your children’s screen time and talk about their online activity.

Show your children good example by limiting your own screen time.

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