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How many times have we said “let’s play” or “go play with the blocks” to our children or to children in our classroom? It sounds so simple, but there are many pieces to the play puzzle for young children. This tool kit will define play, describe the types and benefits of play, and provide ideas and examples of play at home and in school and childcare.

What Is Play?

  • It is important for adults to understand the importance and concepts of play to support a child’s development. Children learn through play. What might seem trivial at the surface can be very profound. It can be spontaneous and imaginative, yet it often follows social norms.
  • While difficult to define, recent research describes play as active, voluntary, fun, and often spontaneous.
  • The American Academy of Pediatrics encourages families to use play to help their children meet developmental milestones.

Types of Play

  • The Barton Lab at Vanderbilt University describes two types of play, each with its own developmental sequence:
    • Social play describes how children play with others as they grow and develop. This includes solitary play, onlooker play, parallel play, associative play, and cooperative play.
    • Object play describes how children learn to play with items in new and more complex ways. This includes sensori-motor play, relational play, functional play, and pretend play.

Benefits of Play

  • Play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, motor skills, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength. Play is important to healthy brain development. It is through play that children at a very early age engage and interact in the world around them. This American Academy of Pediatrics article describes how play promotes healthy child development and helps to maintain strong parent-child bonds.
  • Play connects to learning and development. The National Association for the Education of Young Children has a number of resources to help families and caregivers support young children’s play.
  • This webinar from the Head Start Early Child Knowledge Learning & Knowledge Center describes how play builds critical cognitive and behavioral skills for children birth to age 5.

Play Anywhere

Play at Home

  • This IEL resource list contains a variety of resources that can aid teachers, parents, and caregivers in providing a diverse selection of play options for children that promote skill development, including Young Children Need to Play and Time to Play, Time to Dream: Unscheduling Your Child.
  • IEL’s Say Yes to the Mess tip sheet series includes tips for caregivers to engage their children in messy play in snow, with rocks, and with water.
  • Learning at Home Activities have been compiled to help families to engage in activities that can be done with very few props or supplies.
  • When playing at home, it is easy to take the lead instead of following the child’s interests. This blog provides strategies for adults to use to expand a child’s play.
  • Nature Play: Loose Parts Are the Best Parts describes the many benefits of outdoor play for young children.
  • The Barton Lab has developed a graphic with tips to play with your child.
  • DREME (Development and Research in Early Math Education) at Stanford University has developed an At-Home Early Math Learning Kit, which includes recipes, math snacks, card games, and tips for reading with young children that help make math learning enjoyable.
  • Aggressive behavior between children during play is normal, but as a parent there are a number of steps you can take to keep aggressive behavior to a minimum.
  • Find many practical ideas for families to support play in and around the home through resources like “I’m Bored” and “Games for On The Go”, offered by Play Scotland.

Play at School or Childcare

  • The Center for Early Childhood Education at Eastern Connecticut University offers several videos to help caregivers support young children’s play through dramatic play and outdoor play and describes cultural influences on children’s play.
  • This article provides important considerations for integrating play in early childhood learning environments.
  • Play-Based Learning … It’s More Than Fun and Games from StarNet describes current research on the benefits of play, aligning play with the IELDS, play-based assessment, and planning for all learners in the classroom. It also provides five practical strategies for elevating play.

IEL Resources

Web Resources

About this resource

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

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

Age Levels (the age of the children to whom the article applies):
Reviewed: 2021