Why is play important?

Play is vital to a child’s development. A child will use play to help them make sense of the world around them, and also to work through various emotions and experiences. It also helps them to learn how relationships between people work.

The best way to support a child’s development through play is to allow them to lead the way. A child should also be encouraged to explore the world, whilst being within the safety of an adult’s gaze. The person caring for them should be sensitive to their signals and respond to their needs during their play time. This will help the child to develop a secure attachment to them, which is also important for their development.

Play comes in all shapes and sizes – imaginary, rule-bound, verbal or non-verbal, pretend, on your own or social, rough and tumble or quieter play – and all of these are beneficial for a child’s development.

What’s important is how they are allowed to play. If you allow a child to make their own decisions and follow their interests, while being actively engaged with them at the same time, you can boost their confidence and self-esteem and expand her imagination and creativity.


Some positive things you can do

Let the child solve tasks themselves, but offer help when they need you

You’ll notice how much a child enjoys working things out for themselves. Any achievements mean much more to them when they have led the task, and solved any problems using their own ideas. So it’s important to allow them to try to solve a task on their own.

But do offer assistance if they start to really struggle. Young children are more able to learn a skill or master a new activity if they know they will receive help, should they encounter a difficulty. If they do, they are more able to accept some frustration if the activity they are involved in is likely to throw up some challenges.

For instance, if a child is playing with a shape sorter toy and the square block still won’t fit in the round hole after many tries, they could become overwhelmed by the failure. But if they know they can ask for help – perhaps by just passing the block to you and signalling: “Can you help me find the square hole?”, they are less likely to collapse in disappointment and give up entirely. If children feel that they are able to ask for help when learning new tasks when they are young, this will help them in the future. It will make it easier for them to form relationships with people they can learn from later on in their lives.

Whenever they attempt a task, do make them feel that you are interested in what they are doing, and give them your full attention. This will help the child to focus on the task and will also help them increase their attention span.

Allow the child to play in the way that appeals to them

Often children don’t play the way we would expect or think best - but allowing them to explore in their own way is the best way for them to learn. For example, at a pretend tea party, they may suck the tea from the teapot spout or pour the sugar into the milk jug! That is ok! Let them experiment with new ways of playing, instead of correcting them. Maybe the child has another plan in mind, that is more imaginative than our own!

It is important not to be intrusive in a child’s play, but to try to understand what they might be communicating and why. Do also try and stay aware of their needs throughout.

Let the child follow their interests, and get involved yourself

During play sessions it helps if you watch out for the kind of activity the child is most keen to get involved with, and then try to follow their lead. You can also revolve their play activities around the things that you know really interest them. Also, don’t be afraid to get stuck in and join in with what they are looking at or investigating in that moment. When doing so, it’s best to be fully involved comment only on the thing they are focusing on. They will let you know when they are ready to move on to something else, and they will show you what they would like to do next.

Follow the child’s pace – how ever slow it is

When playing with a child, slow down your pace and let the child complete the task themselves, however long it takes. As adults, we often want to speed ahead, as we already know how something works or the rules of a game. But it’s important to remember that a child is a slower thinker and is learning everything for the first time. It may be that they take ten minutes just to investigate the teapot - it’s shape, colour, how it feels etc. But sitting back and letting the child set the pace will allow them to engage in deeper exploration. Children like to repeat things over and over as this helps them learn what will happen each time. It is helpful to allow children to do this, even if we adults get bored with it!

Create a fun, positive and playful atmosphere

Try to create a positive environment by being playful in your communications and interactions. Using a warm, soft, friendly tone of voice and facial expressions will encourage the sharing of feelings between you both, helping the child feel safe enough to fully immerse themselves in the play. Experiencing mutual enjoyment in the play can help to create a bonding and stimulating space. Introducing humour and fun can also create a positive atmosphere, which is a vital aspect of play.

Allow the child some independence if they need it, but stay in sight

As babies grow into toddlers, they will start to feel more independent and wish to separate from the adults caring from them more. But even so, they will still want to know that the person caring for them is available if needed. So do support their need for independence by letting them wander off to another part of the room to play - but remain interested and available for when they need you. You can also play games with the child that are linked to this theme of separation, such as ‘peekaboo’.

Encourage non-gendered play

As professionals, we can support children’s development by actively resisting gender stereotypes in play, for example by offering dolls to boys, and toy vehicles to girls. Rigid gender roles or expectations can have a negative effect on all children and exclude them from valuable learning experiences. This can be particularly damaging for transgender and gender non-conforming children, who may be aware of their gender identity from a very young age.

Signs of anxiety to look out for during play

Play is a safe way for children to act out things that are worrying them, and you can also notice signs of worry through play. These could include when children participate in more repetitive play (i.e. repeating over and over what they have heard, drawing the same pictures again and again, or taking special care of a particular toy).

They may also act out more difficult emotions through their play e.g. in pretend play, they or their toys may show more frustration or anger for one another. Placing this anxiety or anger outside of themselves, helps them to gain control over it and avoid becoming overwhelmed. It can help if adults notice any themes or emotions running through the play, and take the time put these worries into simple words for the child.

Encouraging parents and carers to play with their children more

If possible, parents should increase the time they play with their children during these times. You could suggest that parents set daily times to play games together for this will contribute to the child’s sense of stability. Parents may struggle to find the time and space to play for long periods, but setting aside even ten minutes of quality time, free from distractions, can be enormously beneficial. Parents who are struggling to manage their own stress and anxiety may also find that setting a time limit helps them to engage more fully in the here and now with the child, although it’s best not to share this time limit with the child.

It is also helpful to reassure parents who are trying to home school at the moment that allowing for unstructured play is much more important than ‘lessons’.

Top tips to share with parents and carers
  • Take the time to play with your children as much as you can, and don’t be afraid to get down onto the floor with them and get stuck in! It does not have to be for hours - a few times a day for five or ten minutes is enough.
  • Playing together can help a child to handle difficult moments more easily and can have a calming effect. If a child is very active, it can help to read a book or do a puzzle together.
  • The type of play you do with your children does not matter.
  • Allow your child to lead the play, following their focus and allowing them to explore in their own space and time. This helps their learning and promotes their self-esteem and decision-making!
Impact of the health crisis

The health crisis could impact on where children usually play (e.g. nursery or a local playground) and who they normally play with (e.g. friends or grandparents) but it may also impact on the type of play they participate in.

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