The Power of Play: A Tool for Development

Brought to you by the Pediatric Rehab Team at Emerson Hospital

Play is one of the most important things you can do with your child. It fosters development in a number of important areas and is an integral part of your child’s developmental milestones. Here are some examples of what you can expect as your child grows: 

•    Looks at adults closely
•    Explores objects with their mouth
•    Bangs and shakes toys 

6-12 MONTHS 
•    Explores through the mouth and by touching objects
•    Looks at and imitates adults
•    Imitates movements
•    Likes simple games like peek-a-boo
•    Explores toys alone 

12-18 MONTHS 
•    Functional use of objects in play
•    Simple pretend play is self-directed
•    Combines use of two objects in play
•    Solitary play, however, initiates play with adults and is interested in other children 

18-24 MONTHS 
•    Observes other children playing
•    Imitates children and adults
•    Enjoys playing with adults and alone
•    Learns through trial and error
•    Still explores toys with his/her mouth

2-3 YEARS 
•    Parallel play alongside other children
•    Demonstrates imaginative play
•    Demonstrates symbolic use of objects (e.g., using a stick as a sword) 

•    Plays cooperatively with other children
•    Turn taking with peers and adults
•    Develops friendships and preferences for playing with some children
•    Imaginative play with longer and more advanced schemas 

4-6 YEARS 
•    Begins to use and understand symbols such as reading and writing
•    Increased reasoning skills to solve problems during play
•    Play is cooperative, in a group, and supportive of others with shared goals and outcomes 

Play promotes development across many areas, thus being one of the most important things we can do with our children.

Physical development is a positive outcome from play time. Movement expands a child’s body awareness and encourages gross motor skills such as crawling, standing, walking, jumping, and throwing. Children are also able to develop fine motor skills to support activities like manipulation of objects and toys, coloring, drawing, and writing.

Children can advance their language skills through play when given the opportunity to learn and use new vocabulary and engage in imitation and sound creation. It also promotes communication and reciprocity, in addition to the understanding of routines, concepts and object use. 

Play also fosters social and emotional growth. Children can develop social skills across varying environments, whether they are engaging with an adult, one peer, or a group of peers. Interaction and play with others, including peers, will change as the child gets older. Children will establish relationships and interact with others, which promotes taking turns, expressing positive and negative emotions, and learning to interpret the feelings of other adults and children. Play is also a valuable opportunity to practice interpersonal negotiation and conflict resolution strategies about sharing space, materials, or understanding rules and expectations.

Because multisensory learning promotes neural connectivity and brain development, cognitive skills are developed when kids use playtime to create new ideas and explore. They learn cause and effect relationships and at the same time improve their creativity. 

What Parents Can Do

Here are some ways to foster positive play development in your kids.

  • Offer a safe environment to play in, such as a playroom, the back yard, parks, and school or community playgrounds.
  • Provide open-ended things to play with to promote creativity. This includes items and toys that can be manipulated in many ways. Good examples include blocks and Legos, Play-Doh, puppets, musical instruments, and art supplies.
  • Limit screen time. Technology, such as television and tablets, has replaced opportunities for interactive communication and conversation that can be achieved during play. 
  • Try to avoid over-scheduling and structuring. In the past couple of decades, play has been replaced with technology and media entertainment (iPads, television) as well as activities to help children “get ahead” (organized sports, camps, and lessons). 
  • Set up play dates with other children from the community or school.
  • Encourage outdoor play at parks and on playgrounds. 
  • Encourage sensory rich play such as sand, water, and finger painting.
  • Encourage manipulative play such as blocks, peg boards, and puzzles.
  • Encourage imaginative or pretend play with things like dolls, puppets, or play kitchen sets. 
  • Remember, play, including unstructured creative play, is integral for intellectual, social, and emotional development.