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Why is Play Important for the Emotional Development of a child?

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If you think back to your own childhood you probably remember playing with friends at lunchtime. Whether it was a simple game of tag, sports, or even fighting imaginary bad guys from your favorite cartoon, you probably saw these moments as a break from learning. Psychology, however, tells us that play is just important for our development as any “school subject.” 

Play is important for emotional development because it:

  • facilitates a safe place to experiment with feelings
  • teaches kids how to manage their stress response
  • builds self-esteem
  • helps kids work through trauma
  • improves our communication and cooperation with others 
  • strengthens empathy

If you’d like to better understand the importance of play in human development, the following sections will act as your guide. We will discuss how play helps to develop children’s emotional fortitude and their self-esteem. Further, we’ll delve into what appropriate play based on age looks like and suggest ideas for how you might optimise your child’s play as they grow.    

How Play Guides Our Social and Emotional Development

There are several ways in which play can guide our social and ultimately emotional development. Below we have outlined some of the most prominent ways developmental psychologists have suggested how play allows for a child to learn social and emotional skills.

  • Experiment with Feelings: During imaginative play in particular, children are able to “pretend” they are experiencing events that stir up mixed emotions. This gives them a safe place to experiment with their feelings.
  • Build Self-Esteem: When a child is able to contribute to a game with their peers, this can be a great way in which play can help build their self-esteem. 
  • Manage Stress Response: Unstructured play releases more serotonin and oxytocin in children’s brains and gives them an opportunity to forget their woes and release stress. A child who is not given this outlet is far more likely to suffer from anxiety.  
  • Deal with Trauma: Children often use toys or drawings to reenact difficult events and release trauma. According to Johns Hopkins University, it is good to allow children this outlet and even join in (make sure they’re still directing) to better understand what is on the child’s mind.  
  • Learn Cooperation: Games often have rules. Rules require cooperation. When children play structured games with their friends, they learn how to cooperate towards a shared goal. 
  • Develop Empathy: Play gives children a chance to pretend to be other people or fulfill roles they wouldn’t normally get to in real life. This helps them see the world through others eyes and develop empathy. 

What Are the Different Stages of Play?

Sometimes it can be hard to tell if your child is playing in a way that is age-appropriate. Since we know play is so vital to their development, it is a good idea to know the usual forms of play children engage in based on their age. As a child develops they are expected to go through six stages of play. Below we have listed each stage along with a brief description of what to expect.

  • Unoccupied Play (First three months): During a child’s first three months they will essentially play by moving their body and discovering how it works.
  • Solitary Play (First two years): In the first two years it is normal if a child only wants to play alone. They are really only just beginning to learn who they are. 
  • Spectator Play (Two Years): In this stage, the child wants to watch other children play but doesn’t yet join in themselves.
  • Parallel Play (Two Plus Years): The child may play near other children however they still don’t yet play together. 
  • Associate Play (Three to Four Years): During this stage children ostensibly play together, however they are all still kind of doing their own thing. For example, they may all be playing with the same legos, but all building something different. 
  • Cooperative Play (Four and Up): This is when children really start to play together. They may begin with games that have very simple rules like tag but they will eventually graduate to complex games like the usual sports. If a child still isn’t playing with friends by this point there is likely a problem that needs to be addressed.   

Suggestions to Optimise Play for Different Age Groups

As we age we naturally gravitate toward different forms of recreation. There are stages of development where different forms of guided and unstructured play can both be used to optimize their effectiveness.

First Year 

  • Imitation: Another way to help a child develop social skills is to respond to their facial expressions. Returning a smile to an infant is a great way of teaching them how to read and reciprocate nonverbal forms of communication. You can also simulate conversations by responding to their coos as if you were having a conversation in a real language.
  • Peekaboo: Peekaboo not only helps develop a baby’s object permanence and motor skills, but it’s also one of the first ways of simulating social interaction.
  • Safe Exploration: As your infant gets into the range of 7 months to 12 months old you should allow them space to crawl around and explore on their own. This helps them develop self-esteem, security, and curiosity later in life. 

One to Three Years Old 

  • Encourage Creativity/Unstructured Playtime: While it’s good to play structured games like “duck, duck goose” with toddlers, it’s equally if not more important to give them opportunities for unstructured play. This again, allows them to develop curiosity and security in trying new things. 
  • Playdates: Scheduling playdates with your child’s peers is a great way to help them develop social skills that will be important to their emotional stability later in life. It’s also important to point out here, that you can play with them yourself when there aren’t peers around so they can further develop those social skills. We should also note that at this stage it is normal if the playdate involves children simply playing near each other but not necessarily with each other.  
  • Make Believe: Allowing your child time for imaginative play is vital to their developing empathy and practicing social roles in life. Further, this really gives them a chance to try on different “societal roles” in a safe environment. 

Four to Six Years Old

  • Both Structured and Unstructured Play: At this point more structured play becomes important. Encouraging your child to play games with rules at recess can help them develop skills for cooperation. Still, unstructured play will help them to release stress and shouldn’t be thrown out. 
  • Physical Play: Limiting your child’s screen time and encouraging them to get outside and have real-world interaction with friends can be huge in boosting those social skills.
  • Tell Stories/Read: Telling your child stories or reading them from a book is good at any age, but as they grow into this age group you should begin to ask more specific questions. This helps them develop more empathy and simulates social interactions.    

So, Why is Play So Important for Emotional Development? 

Play is vital for a child’s emotional development because it both gives them an opportunity to develop social skills and to both safely simulate and release difficult emotions. Play can help children to develop a solid stress response and to work through any trauma they may have experienced. 

As a child ages, certain forms of play are better for optimising their social and emotional development. Occupational Therapists can assist your child in developing their play, social and emotional regulation skills. Consider what type of play suits your child best, whether it’s water play, building lego or something else such as pretend play.

If your child has difficulty in these areas, contact us today to see if your child might benefit from OT services. Alternatively, for more play ideas, check out Ready Kids Platform – unlimited resources created by Occupational Therapists so you can help your child develop the skills they need at home!

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