Children’s Play: The Whys and Hows

Parents may be tempted to place more emphasis on academic learning or caregiving routines. However, young children learn most naturally through play. So, how important is play in a child’s [...]

Parents may be tempted to place more emphasis on academic learning or caregiving routines. However, young children learn most naturally through play. So, how important is play in a child’s daily life? SPD’s senior psychologist Lim Lihong and psychologist Sandy Ang share more.

Play is a powerful tool for engagement, learning and growth because it is often intrinsically rewarding. While children are not always able to talk about their thoughts, feelings and experiences, they are usually able to express these easily through play.

In fact, play is especially important for developing skills such as problem solving, collaboration and creativity – a child’s playful engagement with objects and/or other people often opens doors to discoveries about himself/herself and the world in general.

Whys of play: Play brings about many positive outcomes

A girl pretend-plays as a cashier receiving a toy carrot from another girl
In a game of pretend play at a store, children can learn vocabulary, social skills and literacy skills

1) Play serves as a great context for learning as it allows children to build up skills such as language, literacy and social skills.

For instance – in a game of pretend play at a store, children can learn:

  • vocabulary – learning the words or phrases to use when they role play as the customer and store owner;
  • social skills – learning to take turns with playmates;
  • literacy skills – learning to read the labels of the items

2) Play provides an outlet for anxiety and stress, thus helping children to grow emotionally.

Play generates pleasant feelings and meaningful interactions with playmates during playtime. That in turn serves as a great buffer against toxic stress, builds social-emotional resilience and helps regulate physiological responses to stress. Children are also more inclined to learn better in a low-stress environment.

3) Play allows children to be spontaneous and aids in making choices.

Play can sometimes be unplanned and spontaneous. For example, when a toy is not functioning properly or when a child changes his mind in playing a game in a certain way. In those situations, children are presented with incidental opportunities to learn to cope with emotions, adapting, improvising, problem solving and making decisions.

Hows of play: Some play ideas for the early years

1) Newborns and babies

  • Respond to your child’s smile by smiling back.
  • Imitate your child’s coos and babbles and pretend to have a back-and-forth ‘conversation’.
  • Provide toys of different sizes, colours and shapes that are safe for your child to bring to his/her mouth to explore and experience new textures.
  • Create a safe space for your child to crawl around in and explore.
  • Encourage your child to explore cause and effect in daily routines (e.g., child drops a toy; toy falls to the ground and makes a sound).
  • Play peek-a-boo.
  • Schedule regular tummy time – place your child on his/her stomach to play.

2) Toddlers

  • Offer your child empty containers, wooden spoons, or blocks to support creative free play.
  • Schedule sessions for your child to play with others, under supervision.
  • Engage in simple make-believe play using commonly found objects. For e.g., pretend to drink from an empty cup, or use the television remote control as a phone.
  • Encourage your child to explore different body movements or sports such as running, balancing, riding a tricycle.
  • Play some age-appropriate, socially interactive games (e.g., Pop-up Pirate and Hungry Hippos).

3) Pre-schoolers

3 children using building bricks to create a vehicle
  • Create opportunities for make-believe play, such as grocery shopping and visiting the doctor or dentist.
  • Encourage your child to interact, build friendships and play cooperatively with friends, siblings or cousins, whenever possible.
  • Provide enjoyable games for your child and his/her playmates. For e.g., simple jigsaw puzzles and matching games are good for enhancing memory and concentration; playdough, clay and slime help to develop fine motor skills.
  • Introduce some age-appropriate, socially interactive games (e.g., Simon Says, I Spy, Scissors-Paper-Stone), including board games (e.g., Monopoly, Snakes and Ladders).

For more tips on how to play with your child at home, you may view this webinar conducted by SPD’s occupational therapists on our Facebook page.

Here are some useful links for more information about play:

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