Why play is important

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The importance of play

Play is central to your child’s learning and development. When your child plays, it gives them many different ways and times to learn.

Play also helps your child:

  • build confidence
  • feel loved, happy and safe
  • understand more about how the world works
  • develop social skills, language and communication
  • learn about caring for others and the environment
  • develop physical skills.

It’s important for children to have plenty of different types of play experiences. This includes unstructured and structured play, indoor and outdoor play, solo and group play, craft and creative play, and so on. When children get variety, it’s good for all aspects of their learning and development – physical, social, emotional and imaginative.

Different types of play: unstructured and structured

Unstructured, free play is unplanned play that just happens, depending on what takes your child’s interest at the time.

Unstructured, free play is particularly important for younger children because it lets them use their imagination and move at their own pace.

Examples of unstructured play might be:

  • creative play alone or with others, including artistic or musical games
  • imaginative games – for example, making cubbyhouses with boxes or blankets, dressing up or playing make-believe
  • exploring new or favourite spaces like cupboards, backyards, parks, playgrounds and so on.

You can be part of your child’s unstructured play. But sometimes all you’ll need to do is point your child in the right direction – towards the jumble of dress-ups and toys on their floor, or to the table with crayons and paper. At other times, you might need to be a bit more active. For example, ‘How about we play dress-ups? What do you want to be today?’

Structured play is organised and happens at a fixed time or in a set space. It’s often led by a grown-up. Older children are more likely to enjoy and benefit from structured play.

Examples of structured play include:

  • outdoor ball games like kicking a soccer ball
  • water familiarisation classes for toddlers or swimming lessons for older children
  • storytelling groups for toddlers and preschoolers at the local library
  • dance, music or drama classes for children of all ages
  • family board or card games
  • modified sports for slightly older children, like Cricket Blast, Aussie Hoops basketball, NetSetGO netball, Come and Try Rugby and Auskick football.

Structured and unstructured play can happen indoors or outdoors. Outdoor play gives your child the chance to explore, be active, test physical limits – and get messy!

How play develops with children

As your child grows, their attention span and physical skills develop and the way they play will change. Your child will get more creative and experiment more with toys, games and ideas. This might mean they need more space and time to play.

Also, children move through different forms of play as they grow. This includes playing alone, playing alongside other children and playing interactively with other children.

Your child will love playing with you, but sometimes they might prefer to play alone. Your child might just want you to give them ideas and let them know how their play and games are going. And sometimes your child might want to play with other children – no grown-ups allowed!

Newborns and babies: play ideas to encourage development

Just looking at your face and hearing your voice is play for your baby, especially if you’re smiling.

You might like to try the following play ideas and activities with your little one:

  • Music, songs or bells develop hearing and movement. You could try gentle tapping on your baby’s tummy while you sing.
  • Peekaboo is great for your baby’s social and emotional development.
  • Gentle tickles or objects with different textures develop the sense of touch. You and your baby could experiment with things like feathers, mud, metal or foam.
  • Objects of different sizes, colours and shapes can encourage your child to reach and grasp.
  • Sturdy furniture, balls, toys or boxes can get your child crawling, standing and walking.

Regular tummy time and floor play are very important for young babies. Tummy time encourages your baby to move and roll and helps them develop muscle strength and control. It also lets your baby see and experience the world from a different perspective. All you need is a playmat or blanket on the ground or floor.

Toddlers: play ideas to encourage development

Here are some ideas your toddler might enjoy:

  • Large and light things like cardboard boxes, buckets or blow-up balls can encourage your child to run, build, push or drag.
  • Chalk, rope, music or containers can encourage jumping, kicking, stomping, stepping and running.
  • Hoops, boxes, large rocks or pillows are good for climbing on, balancing, twisting, swaying or rolling.
  • Dress-up games with scarves, hats and so on are good for imagination and creativity.
  • Hills, tunnels or nooks can encourage physical activities like crawling, climbing and exploring.

If you put on some favourite music while your toddler plays, they can also try out different sounds and rhythms. You might also like to sing, dance and clap along to music with your child.

Preschoolers: play ideas to encourage development

Here are some ideas to get your preschooler’s mind and body going:

  • Old milk containers, wooden spoons, empty pot plant containers, sticks, scrunched-up paper, plastic buckets, saucepans and old clothes are great for imaginative, unstructured play.
  • Simple jigsaw puzzles and matching games like animal dominoes can improve your child’s memory and concentration.
  • Playdough and clay help your child develop fine motor skills.
  • Favourite music or pots and pans are great for dancing or making music.
  • Balls can encourage kicking, throwing or rolling.

When you’re encouraging your child to kick or throw, see whether you can get them to use one side of their body and then the other.

School-age children: play ideas to encourage development

Your school-age child can have fun with the following objects and activities:

  • Furniture, linen, washing baskets, tents and boxes are great for building cubbyhouses.
  • Home-made obstacle courses can get your child moving in different ways, directions and speeds.
  • Games like ‘I spy’ are great for word play. They also develop literacy skills.
  • Simple cooking and food preparation activities are great for developing science, numeracy, literacy and everyday skills.
  • Your child’s own imagination can turn your child into a favourite superhero or story character.

If your child is interested, you could think about getting them into some sports or team activities for school-age children. Other possibilities include after-school or holiday art and craft activities.

Homemade toys and free activities can help children learn and develop. They’re often the most creative ways for you and your child to have fun together.

If your child doesn’t want to play

There might be times when your child doesn’t want to play. For example, they could be tired or bored by doing the same activity for too long. This is common and usually nothing to worry about.

But sometimes a lack of play – or a lack of interest in play – can be a sign of a developmental disorder.

Here’s when to consider speaking with a health professional or your child’s educator:

  • Your baby doesn’t seem to get into interactive play like peekaboo.
  • Your toddler has an extremely narrow interest in toys or doesn’t use toys in a functional way. For example, your child is interested only in spinning the wheels of a toy car instead of driving it around the room like other children the same age.
  • Your preschooler isn’t interested in playing with other children or in playing pretend games.

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