It’s something every parent knows instinctually: play is more than just play for kids. But exactly what are they learning as they play? As it turns out, a lot. Here’s how play is helping your kid learn, grow, and thrive:
Practical life skills
From the toddler “helping” with laundry to the six-year-old setting up a pretend restaurant in their play kitchen, kids love to mimic and act out aspects of adult life – even the ones that might seem dull to us. No matter what age or what activity they’re trying or pretending to accomplish, this type of play helps them make sense of the adult world and build the skills to do it themselves one day.
For toddlers, that might mean that they’re practicing the fine motor skills they’ll need to fasten buttons or pour water. For older kids, they’re often rehearsing the social norms of everyday interactions (i.e. what do we say when the waiter asks us how we’re doing?). All of these pretend practice sessions are helping shape your kiddo into a confident, capable adult.
Fine and gross motor skills
Toddlers are naturally drawn to fine motor activities like opening containers, putting puzzle pieces together, and stacking blocks. Those skills have become so second nature to us that we take them for granted, but they’re crucial for everything from holding a pencil correctly to learning to play an instrument one day.
Gross motor skills aren’t talked about quite as much, but they're just as important for healthy development. Activities that let young kids climb, lift heavy objects, squat, jump, and balance do more than just strengthen their muscles – they’re helping develop their vestibular system for strong balance, coordination, and spatial awareness.
Social and emotional skills
Every time kids pretend with their friends, they’re creating unspoken social contracts (adorable, silly unspoken contracts). They decide what they are pretending and how their make-believe world works. If they want to switch gear or change something about their pretend world, they have to communicate and get their friends onboard.
Even independent play can help kids develop their emotional and social awareness. Role-playing activities help them grow their ability to empathize and see from others’ perspectives. Dollhouses, for example, encourage kids to take on the roles of multiple family members.
In those oh-so-sweet moments of secretly watching them play, you’ve probably noticed that they’re often playing out situations that happen in everyday life: people making plans, running into conflicts, and working to solve their problems. While the scenarios they come up with may be silly, the social and emotional skills they’re gaining are real.
Educational and cognitive skills
Language development, math skills, and abstract reasoning are just a few of the benefits linked to play. Some of these benefits are ones you’d expect. Talking with your child as you play together naturally builds their vocabulary and language skills. But others are a little more surprising.
For example, playing with blocks seems to help kids perform better in math, even years after they’ve outgrown blocks . In addition, frequent play breaks have been shown to increase kids’ ability to focus on academics.
Notably, play with electronic items hasn’t been associated with the same benefits. Instead, all that brain-boosting magic happens when kids are engaged in
- imaginative and creative play
- social play with adults or peers
- constructive play (i.e. building their own constructions with toys like building blocks and train sets, etc.)
- cognitive play
We think this quote from the American Academy of Pediatrics sums it up it best: “Play allows children to create and explore a world they can master, conquering their fears while practicing adult roles…When play is allowed to be child driven, children practice decision-making skills, move at their own pace, discover their own areas of interest, and ultimately engage fully in the passions they wish to pursue.”
Okay, is it just us, or are you tearing up a little bit too? So, next time your child is building a block tower masterpiece, hosting a ball in their dollhouse, or just running circles around the backyard, take a moment to watch and soak it all in. There’s magic happening there.