Blog Masthead

What role does play have in childhood development?

Play _and _child _development

Pretend games, exploration, running and mud pies all share something in common. They’re ways children play. These activities aren’t just a way to pass time; they’re teaching children skills they’ll use throughout their lives.

Play is a path to learning cognitive skills, physical abilities, new words and social skills. Beyond helping children grow strong and healthy, play helps children grow emotionally. There are six types of play:

  • Unoccupied: the random movements of newborns and infants
  • Independent: playing alone
  • Onlooker: observes other children playing without partaking in play
  • Parallel: two children playing side by side, with little contact
  • Associative: children playing separately but involved with each other
  • Cooperative: Children playing together using social skills

As children’s play skills develop, they’ll move into other types of play including fantasy, competitive, physical and constructive. The way your child will play will vary based on their companions, mood, age and location.

Parents needn’t always plan and participate in their child’s play experiences. Children should be allowed time to explore play individually. Play is a learning opportunity that can increase their feelings of success and self-esteem.

Dr. Alison Gopnik, a longtime researcher and professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, says children learn by playing with everyday objects and by pretending. Water, sand, mixing bowls, and cardboard boxes are ways babies and young children can learn about the physical world while dolls, costumes and toy dishes reflect the social world.

The preschool years, according to Dr. Gopnik, may be the most important time of learning humans have. Exploration and play during preschool help us become adults who are flexible and sophisticated thinkers.

The bottom line on play is that these games, exercises and interactions are critical learning exercises. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) suggests thinking about learning and play as one unit — a science lecture with a lab. In the class that is childhood, learning is the lecture and play is the lab.

Learn more about child development at
ABC Quality is a resource for South Carolina parents. The program is administered by the Division of Early Care and Education of the SC Department of Social Services. Visit the website to dig deeper into important aspects of childhood development including learning through play, nutrition and brain development. Search for a child care provider or learn about the state’s voluntary quality rating system, ABC Quality.

ABC Quality helps parents provide children with exceptional childhood experiences that grow stronger, smarter and safer South Carolinians.

By ABC Quality Team on November 1, 2016