Playing is a natural activity for children. Although playing might seem trivial, unimportant, or unnecessary to some parents, it significantly contributes to children becoming well-rounded and healthy, and it assists in shaping their cognitive, social, emotional, and physical capacity. There are many forms of play that children may engage in on a daily basis.
Categories of Play
- Toy/Object Play. With this form of play, children are using their sensory-motor skills to explore or experiment with an object to determine its properties such as texture, color, shape, functionality, or purpose. Object play usually progresses from early sensorimotor exploration with, for example, the mouth, to the use of symbolic objects for communication and abstract thought such as a book used to mimmick a telephone.
- Outdoor Play. In outdoor play, children are active participants who use their sensory skills to explore their natural environment. The benefit of exploring outdoors is that children learn to appreciate the diversity of nature while building their spatial awareness, balance, and attention span.
- Physical or Rough-And-Tumble Play. Physical play involves physical movements and engages both children’s gross motor and fine motor skills. These may include crawling for infants, while for older children, it may consist of running, skipping, walking, and playing hopscotch. Physical play may be structured (guided by rules and instructions to achieve a goal) or unstructured.
- Social or Pretend Play with or without Others. This type of play involves experimentation with social roles. Pretend play with other children consists of the negotiation of “rules” for social roles. Pretend play with adults may include adults using voice attunement and smiles to teach infants to take turns. The use of dress-up, make-believe, and imaginary play encourage the use of more sophisticated language to communicate or negotiate rules with playmates. For example, a child may say, “I am the mommy, and you are the baby.”
Benefits of Play
Playing is crucial for children’s overall development. Research suggests many benefits last across the lifespan. Some of these include:
- Exposes children to several life experiences that develop maturity and enable them to handle challenges as they grow.
- Allows children to develop control of their body through activities such as jumping, skipping, and running. Additionally, it enhances muscle tone, balance, and coordination.
- Enhances physical skills of the child, enabling the child to become more secure and independent.
- Enhances the sense of touch as well as hearing and develops the hand and eye coordination in younger children.
- Develops children’s social skills, such as collaboration, cooperation, healthy competition, patience, perseverance, creativity, positive human relations, sharing, and listening to others.
- Improves social awareness.
- Develops language skills, negotiation skills, decision making, problem-solving skills, while enabling the children to be more self-expressive.
- Physical activity promotes healthy weight and cardiovascular fitness, enhance the efficacy of the immune, endocrine, and cardiovascular systems
- Play is a natural tool to build children’s resilience because through play they learn to take risk and experiment with their environment and overcome challenges and adversity
- Reduce the risk of depression and anxiety
- Play with a parent improves the quality of the parent-child relationship, which is positively related to children’s emotional well-being.
Pediatricians recommend specific activities for children in early childhood that can support their physical, cognitive, and emotional and social development (see table 1).
Excerpt from Yogman et al., (2018).
Play in Middle Childhood
For children in middle childhood (6 to 12 years old), parents can encourage play that facilitates their children’s cognitive, physical, and emotional and social development.
Cognitive play activities may include, but not limited to, building and construction games, jigsaw puzzles, word fingers and card games, board games, cooking and baking to encourage children to measure and weigh ingredients, and book and movie discussions.
Play activities that promote social and emotional development may include cooperative board games, team building games such as building a fort, cooperative construction (e.g., building a Lego set together), and party games that teach perspective-taking, emotions, and social bias reduction. Flashcard games that test language, science, math, and other categories are also fun activities to develop children’s minds. Children may also paint, play dress-up games, or role-play to stimulate their imagination and creativity and connect with their emotions
Physical play activities may be aerobic, for example, running outside with friends, dancing, riding bikes, skateboarding, rollerblading, ice/field hockey, swimming, jumping rope, or games such as tag. Other play activities that enhance muscular strength are rope or tree climbing, swinging on playground bars, and tug-of-war games. To tone muscles and build bone mass, children may play jumping rope, skipping, hopping, basketball, tennis, running, or push-ups.
Children need a variety of skill sets to develop, thrive, succeed, and integrate well into their community. Play activities offer numerous opportunities for children to develop their cognitive, physical, and emotional skills. Parents should take every opportunity to incorporate developmentally appropriate play activities in their children’s daily lives.
Ginsburg, K.R.; American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Communications; American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health (2007). The importance of play in promoting healthy child development and maintaining strong parent-child bonds. Pediatrics,119(1):182–191.
Ginsburg, K.R.; Council on Communications and Media; Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health (2012). The importance of play in promoting healthy child development and maintaining strong parent-child bond: focus on children in poverty. Pediatrics,129(1). Available at: www.pediatrics.org/cgi/content/full/ 129/1/e204
Yogman M, Garner A, Hutchinson J, et al.; AAP Committee on Psychological Aspects Of Child And Family Health, AAP Council On Communications And Media (2018). The Power of Play: A Pediatric Role in Enhancing Development in Young Children. Pediatrics,142(3):e20182058
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