It’s child’s play

As adults, we seem to have little time for ‘play’.  It’s what we tell our children to go and do when we’re busy doing more important things like hoovering.  We might say in an offhand way that our spouse is just ‘playing’ with a new gadget they got for Christmas.  At parents evenings, we ask about our children’s reading, or maths, but we don’t often ask what they do at play times.

But why should we be interested in our children’s play?  How important really is play?

“Play is essential for children’s development, building their confidence as they learn to explore, to think about problems, and relate to others.” The Early Years Foundation Stage Statutory Framework 2014

Children find out about the world through play – they try out ideas, and see what happens (think of the moment your baby realised they could control their arms, and then later that they could make the music start on a favourite toy)!  Play provides the foundations for children’s cognitive development – as they explore, they learn how to solve problems, and make links between their experiences of the world.  For example, they learn they can blow and pop bubbles with the bubble wand, but also with a straw in their drink.  They might then try blowing bubbles in the swimming pool…  They are learning what a bubble is, and the key components of liquid and air.  The problem solving and reasoning skills children learn in play will be needed at school and throughout life.

Play also develops children’s social skills.  As they learn the fun that can be had from playing together, children also learn how to take turns, share, compromise and negotiate.  These skills develop gradually, as we will see below:

My baby…

·       Explores objects with their hands, mouth, and eyes (at around 5 months old).   Your baby is working out what the object is like, what it does, and what they can do with it!

·       Will learn to combine objects in play (around their first birthday) – putting balls in a bucket or cars on a ramp

·       Slightly later, toys will be used for the purpose intended – toy cars will be pushed along the floor, and shapes will be put into the shape sorter

You can…

·       Allow your baby to explore safe objects, in whichever way they chose to, once you’ve made sure there are no small parts

·       Choose toys that have bright, contrasting colours, to catch your child’s interest and make them want to explore

·       Rhymes and songs are a fun way to spend time with your baby and reinforce your bond

·       Join in their repetitive games, such as putting the balls in the bucket, then tipping them out, then putting the balls in the bucket… then see if they’re anticipating the next step!

My toddler…

·       Often plays alone, although other children may be nearby, or playing with the same activity

·       Is starting to try out pretend play – objects don’t have to be what they look like, that pretend banana could be a banana, but I could also use it as a telephone (picture?) (Hughes, 1999).

You can…

·       Join in with your child’s pretend play.  You could even suggest it by ‘phoning’ them on the banana…

·       Give your child opportunities to play alongside other children, such as at parent and toddler groups, music groups or at nursery

·       Join your child and a friend in their play, to encourage them to play together, e.g. suggesting ‘let’s all build a house together!’

Your pre-schooler…

·       May still play alongside (rather than with) other children, but may also be starting to pay more attention to the other children – sometimes sharing toys, or talking to the other children about their play

·       Will understand the concept of turn-taking, but may still need help to practice this, especially when they really want their turn!

·       Will be getting better at building – their Lego houses will start to look more like houses, or castles (Reifel, 1984), as will their drawings and paintings.  Their creativity and imagination is starting to blossom!

·       Between the ages of 3-8, up to 60% of children will have an imaginary friend

You can…

·       Provide activities that can be shared or independent – think big boxes of bricks, shared craft resources, or a box of cars.  You can either keep control of who has the box, encouraging sharing or just taking one item each time.  For slightly older children, put the box in the middle and see if they can share and negotiate on their own

·       Play simple turn taking games, like Pop Up Pirate or the Honey Bee Tree game.  Remember to say each time whose turn it is

New school starters…

·       Can play together, share a common goal and work together to achieve it (cooperative play)

·       Spend nearly half their time choosing construction play (building or creative) activities when given free-play time

·       Enjoy advanced pretend play, and can create imaginary characters and stories

You can…

·       Encourage your child to engage in role play – acting out scenes or stories, either themselves or with small world play figures.  Research suggests that children who are able to act out negative or stressful situations may be developing coping strategies that they apply when they encounter similar situations in real life


School children…

·       Start to enjoy team games and sports, and understand the rules of these better

·       Construction play becomes more complex, and you can see how your child is experimenting and learning about science and engineering!

·       May enjoy creating and playing in fantasy games (which may well computer games)



·       Still need play times!

·       Embrace your child’s interests and preferred play styles – show an interest and learn with them as they pick up new hobbies

·       Keep providing opportunities for unstructured, creative and imaginative play, as this will continue to have benefits to your child’s ability to manage their emotions and social situations

·       Don’t be too quick to step in to solve social problems for them – the skills of negotiation and compromise are learnt through practice

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Things to look out for

You can see how important play is to your child, and how as adults we can make sure children have the opportunities to play and therefore learn from birth.  If you notice any of the following in your toddler or child, you may want to consider talking to their nursery, school or your GP about their play skills:

  • Not interested in other children, even just watching them or smiling at them
  • Repetitive play with one toy, or part of a toy
  • Reluctant to allow another person into their play or game
  • Not starting their own pretend play (e.g. pretending to sleep, using a container as a pretend drum, or a box as a house or rocket)
  • Not wanting to share experiences with you – e.g. by bringing you toys they like to show you or share with you, by pointing at things to show you, to ask for something, or to get help

I hope this article has made it clear to you just how important play is, at all ages.  Your homework, which you must complete this week, is to see how your child most likes to play, and go and join in!

If you’re interested in finding out more check out our free tailored 10 part inbox speech and language therapy courses. Designed by our Iris Speaks Experts to help your family on their speech and language journey. Sign up here!

Written by Alys Mathers, Speech and Language Therapist

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