The Importance of Play in a Child’s Development


Cathy Lauer
Focus on Adoption magazine
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As a child, I can still remember family gathering at my grandparents’ home. After dinner had been cleared away, the adults would play cards. I could hardly wait until I was old enough to join in the adult game.

Card and board games have remained a part of my family’s reconnecting process. Now that we are all adults with families of our own, we still play them whenever we get together. Our children have also learned the favourite family games and even the youngest are encouraged to join in, even if that means just sitting on an adult’s lap to watch. As our children have gotten older, they have taken on the love of game playing, which has helped to form a strong bond between the cousins. It is gratifying to see so many positive friendships formed regardless of age.

We hear the saying “Play is child’s work” so often, but do we really understand the importance of it? Children learn and practise a variety of life skills through play. As parents, we look forward to our babies growing up and becoming more independent by learning to play on their own. What we forget is that, regardless of their age, they still require adult support in their play if it is to remain a positive learning experience. The parent-child bond that begins at birth must be nurtured throughout childhood and in the teen years. This bonding process becomes even more important to establish for parents who have not been with their child since birth.

The benefits for parents and children when they play together are numerous. Through play we can provide a safe environment in which to practise social skills and form a positive connection with the child. Play can be an excellent icebreaker with a new or older child. Language, in general, is enhanced through play, especially when parents are involved. Fine and gross motor activities are also areas where parents can play with their children to allow for successful practice time while learning new or challenging motor skills.

Positive parent child interaction leads to strong trust between parent and child. Play can be a great way to solve problems for children of any age as you role-play in a game or chat during play. After a disagreement or absence, play can be a great way to reconnect with a child. A favourite toy or game played together is comforting in itself, and comforting memories of having played before allows conversation to flow and positive feelings to return.

Children benefit from play across a multitude of developmental areas. Social, emotional, sensory, gross and fine motor and language skills are all enhanced through a positive play environment. If the play environment is parent led, children become confident in using appropriate language and problem-solving strategies and become more successful in their interactions with others.

Now that we know why play can be so important we need to know how to play. “Easy,” you say? Not for everyone. Imagine for a moment that you are a child meeting a strange adult for the first time. How do you feel? Now imagine you are the adult in the same situation. How do you feel? Now that you know both people are feeling the same way, what can you do to ease the anxiety you are feeling? Kids can see your smile and hear your words, but they are also incredible emotional radar detectors. Let them warm up to you. Sit on the floor or a low chair, depending on their age. Observe what they are already doing.

Notice the body language they are giving. Use your observations for clues as to how you will interact with the child. Since all children are different, even the same child will vary from day to day; observing first will help give you the clues you need to get started.

Now you have collected and processed your clues, what next? Ask the child about what they are doing, if they are engaged in play, or give two choices of something they might like to do with you. Giving a child a choice allows them to choose something they want to do rather than having to do something you want to do; now they are the one in the driver’s seat. Once you are engaged in a play activity with the child, you have an opportunity to introduce play scenarios or do social skill role-playing in a way that will seem natural to the child and not seem like you are trying to teach them something.

Next, get to know what the child is interested in be it toys or activities, and build positive play activities in those areas. Be sure that you are comfortable playing or doing the activity with the child; if you hate swimming there is no point in going swimming with the child, as it will not be a positive for you and the child will sense your discomfort. Play needs to be a positive experience for both of you! Be sure to choose age-appropriate playthings and activities.

The accumulation of positive play activities is a gradual process. Don’t expect to have a great list of activities in a week; instead, let the child lead while you are the director and the list will grow as time goes on. You may even find that some activities get lots of repeat value, while others don’t. Enjoy the ones that are frequently chosen. They will become security and reconnection activities for you in the future. Continue to offer the less frequently chosen activities if they provide lessons that cannot be incorporated in other activities.

The biggest question is still left to tackle: what to play? Armed with all the information you now have about your child, how does one go about weeding through the maze of advertising that leads your child to believe their life won’t be complete without this toy? Just remember the KIS principle. Keep It Simple! Naturally, you have to take into account your child’s likes and dislikes, abilities and disabilities, and what you want out of the products you are buying. For most parents, there are several attributes they look for in a play product: safety, durability, educational value and social implications. Don’t assume gender-specific toys will only be appealing to the gender they are designed for.

Remember that playing with your child does not always have to mean bringing out toys. Card or board games are great for all ages and teach a wide variety of skills including problem solving, cooperation, turn taking and positive social skills.

Reading aloud to your child, regardless of age, is an incredibly positive experience for both parent and child. Doing activities like crafts, baking, gardening or a joint hobby can be a great way to spend time together playing with a child of any age. Most importantly, be creative. Get to know your child and have fun!

Cathy Lauer is a Senior Consultant with Discovery Toys. She has many years experience with special needs children ranging from gifted to developmentally delayed. Contact her at (250) 758-5232 or