Play is a critical part of how children learn

Play is so ubiquitous that we take it for granted and often downplay its importance. But if something is as universal as play — it is not only part of development in all cultures worldwide, we even see it in non-human animals — it must be crucially important.

And it is. In fact, play is beneficial to all areas of child development — cognitive, physical, emotional and social.

Play is defined as:
1) fun;
2) intrinsically motivated — children play simply for the satisfaction it provides;
3) voluntary — if a child is forced, the activity isn’t play;
4) about the process — the means is more important than the end;
5) active — children must be active physically or mentally engaged;
6) non-literal — it involves pretending.

The kinds of play include:
1) social — interacting with other children or adults;
2) object — interacting with objects like toys or blocks;
3) pretend — enacting characters, places or times, or making pretend objects (banana phone);
4) physical — engaging the body, running or ball play;
5) media — interacting with electronic and digital environments.

The skills children learn through play include:
1) creativity;
2) critical thinking;
3) self-control;
4) confidence;
5) collaboration;
6) communication;
7) coordination.

Due to play’s lack of obvious immediate “purpose,” it may be considered a “waste of time.” It is not. Scholars and scientists have studied the function of play for over a century, and have found significant social and cognitive functions, including executive function and emotional self-regulation.

But the blind push to cram academics tends to falsely contrast play with learning and leads schools to cut children’s playtime. The result is counterproductive. Play is a child’s job, and a critical part of how she learns. Active play, including a child’s whole body and large-motor-skills, is a key component of comprehensive learning.

Beyond having fun, when children play, they are building connections in their brain that will be critical to cognitive, social and emotional development. They learn to address social relationships, problem-solving, and to explore and learn about the world.

Preschool learning not only builds literacy, it promotes social and behavioral skills necessary for life-long learning. Imaginary play — sometimes mocked or belittled by ignorant adults and older children — is one of the cornerstones in the development of creativity. Support — even a nod or a smile — encourages and promotes creative thinking. Demeaning, disparaging and critical remarks teach the child that his thoughts are unacceptable and should be hidden.

Storytelling helps develop narrative structure, reflective thinking and collaboration. Even something as simple as briefly stopping to listen to a child’s story lets her know her ideas matter.

Parents wanting to encourage a child’s play and learning can join the child in play — however, let the child drive. Unless the play becomes dangerous or inappropriate, trust your child. Adults tend to feel the need to control or direct. In this case, don’t.

Options for play materials are endless. Children may choose to explore (real or imaginary worlds), paint faces (got lipstick?), build, draw, climb, run around outside or play with animals. And dads should not be afraid to play with dolls and doll houses. Children can learn a tremendous amount about how people behave and interact by acting out the rolls with dolls.

Ultimately, play should be encouraged, particularly outside and with other children. Play is an essential part of our development. And it’s fun.

Thomas N. Dikel, Ph.D., is a developmental psychopathologist and forensic psychologist who works with adults and children and lives and works out of Gainesville. This column is part of a series on parenting.

Originally published at

I am a Developmental Psychopathologist (child development, clinical and forensic psychology, and neuropsychology), focus on child abuse, adult trauma, and PTSD.

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