The importance of play

Oct 24, 2011 at 8:00 a.m. ET

Kids are born to play -- it's instinctive. Play is fun and exciting, but it's also much more than that. Play helps develop a child's imagination, creativity, problem-solving ability and social skills.

Little girl playing with toy dinosaurs

Children love to play

Play is a joy and most children are instinctively eager to play. Play is generally active and is certainly not limited by reality. By using imagination, make-believe play allows children to have control over their world in play. A child can play alone, a child can play with other children but have limited interaction, or two or more children can actively play together, sharing the experience.

Forms of play

Many forms of play exist. Discovery play is basically children doing simple actions to explore (playing in a sandbox). Constructive or creative play is when children use objects or toys to create something (building a tower of blocks). Imaginative play is when children make-believe they are someone else (playing house). Games with set rules (board games or outdoor games) are also a form of play.

Find out more about how to improve your child's language and cognitive development >>

Why play is important

Play supports and contributes to a child's cognitive, emotional, physical and social development. Play is actually so essential to a child's well-being that it has been recognized by the United Nations Commission for Human Rights as a right of every child. It's unfortunate that our hurried, modern lifestyle often leads to a decrease in free child-centered play.

Preschoolers build their vocabulary and language skills during play. They develop fine motor skills by playing with clay, stringing beads and other activities. They improve gross motor skills by playing ball, jumping rope and running.

Undirected play with others allows children to learn how to work as a team, to share, to negotiate, to listen and to resolve conflicts. Self-driven play also lets kids practice their decision-making skills, explore their imagination and creativity, and discover new interests.

Active over passive

In contrast to passive entertainment (such as television or video games), play keeps children active. The importance of physical activity in children can't be overstated. Childhood obesity in our country is an epidemic.

Learn how to break the cycle of childhood obesity >>

The role of parents

Child-centered play doesn't mean that parents aren't involved with their children. Ideally, much of play should include parents or caregivers with their kids. However, play shouldn't be controlled by the adults, as children need to have control in order to reap the benefits of play -- such as creativity and leadership.

The interaction between children and adults in child-driven play helps improve communication and bonding. Adults have the opportunity to be involved with their children, paying full attention to them and building a nurturing relationship.

Life can get hectic and often it seems there are not enough hours in the day. However, it's important to allow your kids to play. Don't over-schedule your child with too many appointments and extra-curricular activities. It can cause stress for both of you. Many schools have increased the emphasis on academics, cutting back on recess, physical education and the creative arts. Therefore, it's crucial to give children even more opportunities for play at home.

Read more about how to avoid over-scheduling your child >>

More on playtime

Ways to incorporate learning into play
Lessons to teach while playing house
Lessons to teach while playing with blocks