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Children and play go together. Play has a central place in childhood. Play has educational and developmental purposes. This Q&A introduces the importance of play and describes appropriate play for different ages. 

What is play? Why is it so important for children?

Play is not just a way for children to fill their time; play is the “work” of children. Through play, children build the foundation for later learning as they solve problems and increase their understanding of themselves, other people, and the world around them.

For young children, “play” includes a variety of activities that are fun and interesting. These activities include quiet play, creative play, active play, dramatic play, games, and manipulative play. Play may be structured or unstructured. Structured play has rules or a specific way of doing things. Games—active games, card games, board games—are examples of structured play. Unstructured play includes activities such as dress-up play, doll play, block building, running and climbing, and riding trikes.

A child may play alone or engage in social play by including other children or adults. Social play has a critical role in helping children learn to interact with others. Some research has identified stages of social play. As children grow, they engage in more complex play. It is important to keep in mind that at any age, a child’s play may reflect an earlier stage:

  • Exploratory play, sometimes called unoccupied play, refers to children’s seemingly random interaction with things and people around them. An adult may not be able to tell whether the child has a purpose in this play.
  • Onlooker play occurs when a child seems to be playing alone while actually watching others’ play activities.
  • Solitary play occurs when a child plays alone or near another child with no interaction between them.
  • Parallel play refers to children’s play when they are near each other and using similar materials but with little or no social interaction.
  • Associative play is similar to parallel play but involves some social interaction.
  • Cooperative play includes common goals and collaboration and may involve complex negotiation, collaborative decision-making, and rule setting.

Sometimes a child’s play has less to do with other people than with finding out about the world. Young children naturally explore their environments in playful ways that help them understand the physical environment and their bodies. This type of play is sometimes called sensorimotor play. As children vary their actions and interact with toys and other objects, they discover what their muscles can do and gain practice in the movements that they need for everyday life. They also have opportunities to learn about gravity and other principles of the physical world.

What is age-appropriate play for infants and toddlers?

Infants learn to play through their actions and their contact with people around them. Babies often play by interacting with adults who talk, sing, and laugh with them. People are babies’ favorite playthings. Parents and caregivers can play peek-a-boo games, dance with babies in their arms, carry them from room to room, and crawl on the floor with them. The ability to take turns begins with such simple interactive play. Adults help foster a baby’s language learning when they smile and talk to the baby during playful interactions such as peek-a-boo or handing a toy back and forth. This kind of give and take is the foundation for oral language development because it shows that conversation involves responses to the words and actions of others.

Infancy is a good time for adults to begin reading and enjoying picture books with children. Adults can also listen to different kinds of music with babies and sing to them.

Babies benefit from floor time when they can safely roll around and explore. Once a baby begins to crawl, toys that can be pushed or rolled and chased across the floor encourage physical activity and interaction with other people.

Toys for infants should appeal to their different senses. Babies enjoy seeing a mobile hanging over their beds and pictures on the walls. They can begin to handle safe toys—soft ones to feel and chew on and toys that rattle and make other sounds. Toys need to be safe to chew because babies explore with their mouths.

Toddlers continue to develop both small and large motor skills. They enjoy manipulating objects, such as putting things into a container and then dumping them out. They can also learn from messy play with water, sand, and soft clay or Play-Doh. Many playful art activities support fine motor skills and encourage children’s creativity. They can begin to use large paint brushes, washable (nontoxic) paints, and crayons. Toddlers need close supervision and safe play materials in case they decide to taste them!

Toddlers can begin to sing songs with adults or make music. Pots and pans make great percussion instruments. Toddlers may want to move with the music and begin to dance.

Toddlers need opportunities for large muscle play. They enjoy bouncing, rolling, and throwing balls of different sizes; jumping on pillows; or making a house or fort out of a cardboard box. With supervision, toddlers can go outdoors for walks, play on climbing and riding toys, and use playground equipment sized for them.

Playing with adults or with other children can aid toddlers’ social-emotional growth and their language development. Taking turns with toys and taking turns while speaking during play can help toddlers see how to get along with others and help them understand the “rules of conversation” that are basic to social interaction and language development. Playing with others also gives toddlers something to talk about!

Some toddlers show increasing interest in looking at picture books themselves or having someone read to them. Other toddlers may not want to sit and share a book yet because they are too busy investigating their world in other ways. Reading before naptime and bedtime may be a good strategy to engage busy toddlers.

A variety of toys and household objects encourage toddlers’ imaginative and dramatic play. Toddlers will enjoy large blocks; pots and pans; toy trucks, cars, and airplanes; clothes and hats for dress-up; dolls, toy animals, and housekeeping toys; and other interesting objects, such as boxes, bows, and wrapping paper. Riding toys that children can push with their feet also promote large motor play.

What is age-appropriate play for preschool and kindergarten children?

Preschool children’s play activities often build on the experiences they enjoyed as toddlers. With better developed motor and social skills, they enjoy active, supervised play by themselves and with others.

Preschool-age children are better able to use crayons, pencils and paints, safe scissors, and paste or glue. Preschoolers tend to be increasingly confident about their ability to run, jump, climb, ride tricycles, and play ball or other interactive games. They usually relish chances to play on playground equipment and to use their large muscles, indoors and outdoors.

Many preschoolers love to pretend and can cooperate to play together. Puppets and other props may be used for role playing and storytelling. This imaginative play helps children act out interests and desires in a situation with intrinsic rules for behavior. Children should have access to books for sharing or looking at on their own. Trips to the library for children’s programs can begin a lifetime habit.

Preschool children like to build with blocks and building toys. They may plan highways and buildings and add small cars and dolls to their structures. Simple group games can be introduced, such as Simon Says or Follow the Leader. Some preschoolers will enjoy card and board games. They can begin to understand that game rules exist so that all players can enjoy playing together. Parents and teachers will probably want to emphasize fun and cooperation rather than competition in games.

Open-ended play materials—those that rely more on the child’s imagination and manipulation—are better learning tools for preschoolers than those that have limited uses. For example, blocks can be used in many ways, while a toy that moves or makes noise while a child sits and looks at it is limited.

What about technology?

Technology (TV, videos, computers, tablets, smart phones, and online games) are part of many young children’s lives, but too many hours using technology can keep children from engaging in play. Adults should also be aware that heavy media use has been linked to reduced physical activity, which may lead to obesity and to less time spent looking at books or being read to, which may delay a child’s learning to read.

Young children should spend time engaged in active play and social interaction and spend limited time with technology. Technology can be a useful tool for older children when used in developmentally appropriate ways. When infants and toddlers use technology, and when preschoolers use technology, adult supervision and rules related to both the length of time spent on the device, and the activity or content chosen, are important.

IEL Resources

About this resource

Setting(s) for which the article is intended:
  • Home
  • Family Child Care
  • Child Care Center
  • Preschool Program

Intended audience(s):
  • Parents / Family
  • Teachers / Service providers

Age Levels (the age of the children to whom the article applies):
Related IEL Birth to Three Guidelines:
Related Illinois Early Learning and Development Standards:
Reviewed: 2022