Play Matters

Play matters. It’s how children learn about themselves and the world around them. Giving a child the opportunity, time, and space to play allows them to explore different interests and passions. Through play, children can develop important life skills that can help prepare them for experiences later in life.

Play is “any spontaneous or organized activity that provides enjoyment, entertainment, amusement or diversion.” Play includes:

  • Having fun
  • Being creative and spontaneous
  • Creating original ideas and acting on them
  • Engagement and concentration

Structured and Unstructured Play

Structured play requires a child to follow directions or rules, and is guided by an adult. This could include board games, puzzles, and organized classes like dance or art, or team sports like soccer.

In unstructured play a child can do what interests them. That is what makes it so fun! Playing on the jungle gym, playing dress up, and exploring the outdoors are all examples of unstructured play. But the possibilities are endless. As long as there aren’t guidelines on how to play, it is unstructured play.

Both structured and unstructured play are important for children and balance is key.

Watch for examples of structured and unstructured play:

Skills Developed Through Play

  • Knowing what to do when no one is directing you
  • Problem solving
  • Creativity and imagination
  • Interacting with others and negotiating
  • Resilience
  • Flexibility and adaptability
  • Willingness to take risks and try new things
  • Processing emotions
  • Understanding social situations
  • Discovering interests
  • Building confidence

How Much Play Time Does a Child Need?

Toddlers should spend at least one hour a day in free, unstructured play, and at least thirty minutes engaged in active, adult led play. Older children need even more time to play each day. Think of play as a prescription from a doctor. It’s something they need every day.

The Screen Time Question

Screen time isn’t just watching TV. Screens includes tablets, computers, phones, and any other digital device or game. Although there are some educational games to “play” on screens, there are certain benefits from active play that you cannot get from screen time.

Children under 12 months should not use screens. Infants do not learn from screens and benefit from human interaction instead.

Is your child is using a screen? If so, try to make it a social activity. Sit with them, ask questions, and play turn-taking games on the device.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends limiting children’s screen time to 1-2 hours per day. This can be more difficult than it sounds, especially when there are so many digital devices to monitor, not to mention screens are a large part of adults’ lives too!

Do's and Don'ts of Play

Here are practical tips to decrease screen time, so your child spends more time playing, exploring, adventuring, and challenging themselves.

  • Keep screens out of your child’s bedroom.
  • Set a good example by decreasing your use of screens in front of your children.
  • Limit “background media” or time when digital devices are on in the background.
  • Set a time limit, or even use a timer, so your child knows exactly when their time is up. This helps you monitor exactly how much time your child is spending with screens.
  • Set family rules for screens such as, only adults are allowed to turn on the TV, computer or devices can only be used after chores are done.
  • Promote active play! Say yes to playing outdoors, playing with friends, playing make believe, playing dress up. When kids ask to watch or use a screen, redirect them toward an active and engaging activity.
  • Brainstorm a list of activities to do in place of when the kids have screens. While waiting at the doctor’s office bring coloring books for entertainment and at home you can play board games as a family instead of watching a movie.

For more tips to encourage meaningful play and to make the most of play time, read out Do’s and Don’ts of Playtime blog post.

Stages of Play

When people think of play they often think of toddlers or young child, but you can start playing as soon as your baby is born. Play changes as your child develops and over time children should become more comfortable playing with others.

  • Unoccupied Play (Birth-3 Months):
    When a baby is making a lot of movements with their arms, legs, hands, feet, etc. They are learning about and discovering how their body moves.
  • Solitary Play (Birth-2 Years):
    When a child plays alone and are not interested in playing with others quite yet.
  • Spectator/Onlooker Behavior (2 Years):
    When a child watches and observes other children playing but will not play with them.
  • Parallel Play (2+ Years):
    When a child plays alongside or near to others but does not play with them.
  • Associate Play (3-4 Years):
    When a child starts to interact with others during play, but there is not a large amount of cooperation required, e.g. kids playing on the playground but doing different things like climbing, swinging, etc.
  • Cooperative Play (4+ years):
    When a child plays with others and has interest in both the activity and other children involved in playing.

Read more about the different stages of play.