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What is Play?

Brothers playing on toy
Child playing with blocks

Did you know that in every culture, all over the world, children play? The United Nations even considers play to be the right of every child. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) published a report about how important play is and lists some of the benefits of play: 

  • Play supports healthy brain development

  • Play is one way infants and toddlers engage in and interact with their environment

  • Play allows children to safely explore their fears and practice adult roles

  • Play is a way that children build relationships with their peers and caregivers

Play is a pretty important part of life. We have a biological drive to play, very much like our biological need to sleep. Satisfying the need to play can be very fulfilling. Play can bring deep joy for both children and adults.

What is Play?

When you think of play, what comes to mind? For adults, it might be organized sports or a hobby. For older children, it can be a world of make believe. For toddlers and infants, it can be delighted rolling back and forth on the floor, banging objects together, pouring water, or just running around in circles.

Play is different for everyone. For example, to some, a room full of infants and toddlers is a really playful place, whereas for others, it can be pretty scary!

Play, put very simply, is an activity that is fun and engaging for the player. Play is freely chosen by the player, although play opportunities may be provided by others.

Play and Exploration

Exploration is where play begins. When infants and toddlers explore new objects they will often try to discover what each object is and what it does.  For example, young infants might explore a rattle by mouthing, shaking, banging, pulling, and throwing it. Toddlers have more experience with exploring new objects. Toddlers, given an empty but closed container, might try to open, shake, turn over, look at the object, or even ask a caregiver for help.

Generally, exploration happens before play. Exploration is how we come to know an object. Once we have some understanding, then we can play with the object. Once the infant understands that shaking the rattle makes a noise, he can shake for the pure delight of shaking! The toddler who has discovered how to open and close the container can move on to playing with it by putting smaller toys inside the container and closing it up.

Often while children play, they discover something new about the object they are playing with. Maybe while shaking the rattle, the baby accidentally hits a mobile hanging over her head. Perhaps the toddler just discovered that while some toys fit into the container there are many that do not. When toddlers play, it brings them to a deeper understanding of the objects and to a place where there is more to learn.

Playing to Learn—Benefits of Play in Early Childhood

Playtime is an important part of childhood development.

  • Play is child-directed, joyful, and voluntary.

  • During play, children are uniquely engaged and motivated, often exploring the edges of their knowledge and abilities. This makes play a unique and powerful learning tool.

Play changes and develops as a child grows.

  • The first year of life typically involves sensory play. At this stage, children also develop an understanding of cause and effect and begin to grow their social skills through imitation.

  • Play in the second year of life often involves pretend play with a toy and parallel—but not collaborative—play with other children.

  • In the third year of life, play expands their social and motor skills. Play now often includes turn-taking and cooperative play.

  • From three to five years of life, play becomes more complex: children coordinate many physical actions, imagination, and rules in coordinated social play with others.

Understand how different play behaviors can facilitate academic learning.

  • During play, children gain many skills important in supporting further academic learning, including experimentation and problem solving abilities, maintain focus and other self-regulating behaviors, spatial reasoning, and communication skills.

  • Play helps children develop skills.

Ways to deepen children’s learning through play.

Create time and space for free play and use scaffolding and guided play during more structured playtime activities.

  • Observe children as they play. Make observations or ask open-ended questions to help them deepen their thinking. Give children time to explore rather than showing them the “correct” way to do something right away.

  • Support motor skill development with big, open spaces and fun activities that use the whole body.

  • Materials that encourage cooperation, such as costumes, tea sets, or turn-taking games, can help support social and emotional learning.

  • Use storytelling and story-acting games to build literacy and oral language skills.

  • Support math and science-related play by providing materials such as blocks, racing cars, sand boxes, and water tables. While children are playing with these materials, asking open-ended questions can enrich math and science learning in any context!

  • Ask parents about the things their child likes to play with at home for ideas about culturally-relevant materials to include in play areas.

Why is Play so Important?

Play: A Key Strategy for Developing Resilience

Children who grow up afraid don’t learn how to play. They learn how to survive.” One of our jobs then becomes to draw out children’s natural playfulness, which gives them an opportunity to discover, learn, and heal. As the iconic Fred Rogers tells us, “Play gives children a chance to practice what they are learning. They have to play with what they know to be true in order to find out more, and then they can use what they learn in new forms of play.” We can create play experiences for children of all ages that give them ways to engage in solving problems, develop self-regulation skills, and form relationships. 


Play benefits every aspect of child development. The act of play comes so naturally it seems to be little more than a simple, joyful experience. Many child development experts believe that play is how infants and toddlers learn about their world. Play provides children with opportunities to learn about and master relationships, language, math, science, problem solving, and their bodies. Let’s look more deeply at all the ways play contributes to development.

Building Relationships Through Play

One of the most important things that young children learn through play is how to form and maintain relationships with others.

Play Builds Caregiver Relationships

Three-month-old Cayden lies in the lap of his in-home family caregiver, Julisa. Cayden stares at her and then coos. Julisa watches Cayden and repeats the sound he makes. Cayden smiles and wiggles as Julisa smiles back. Both Cayden and Julisa clearly enjoy their play together.

Even very young babies enjoy play. They make eye contact and sounds to their parents and caregivers. When the adult responds back to them, they might wiggle or coo. These back and forth interactions are the first steps toward forming a relationship, and are the “play” of very young infants.

Play is an important part of the relationship between babies and caregivers. Babies who have nurturing relationships in their lives have better play skills. These close relationships support infant’s and toddler’s play.

Play Builds Peer Relationships

Twelve-month-old Isaiah is standing at the door clapping his hands. He shouts “Hi” down the hallway. His caregiver, Elisa, comes to see who he is talking to. She realizes that 15-month-old Heidi is arriving with her mom. While Elisa greets them both, Heidi and Isaiah smile at each other and say, “Hi.” Isaiah toddles off to get a ball and turns to see if Heidi is following him. She is! He gets the ball and says to her, “Ball,” and hands it to her. Heidi takes the ball, and they begin to play by passing it back and forth.

Isaiah and Heidi might seem pretty young to be playing together. When babies have many opportunities to play together they begin to form early friendships. Have you ever noticed how even very young infants are interested in other babies? Maybe you’ve seen babies roll toward each other until they are close enough to touch. You may have noticed that some babies even seem to form friendships with each other. They might seek each other out every day, or you might notice they are pleased to spend time together. Each play episode adds a little bit more to the friendship, building up over time until children play easily together.

Play Builds Social Skills

It is not unusual to see a child feeding a baby doll and practicing other types of caregiving. Even younger babies might be seen chatting on a toy phone or gently holding a doll. Caregivers and parents can support this sort of play by providing props like dolls, dishes, and phones.

While it is always preferable to have multiples of a popular toy, sometimes it doesn’t work out. Sometimes a toy that sat on the shelf for months without being noticed is suddenly a hot item! When two children both want the same toy, consider it one of the many opportunities presented through play for learning new social skills such as waiting and being patient. It is not developmentally appropriate to expect infants and toddlers to share a single toy.

However, as they get older, they can understand the concept of taking turns. When toddlers are taking turns it can help for an adult to point out how patient they are while they wait for their toy. In the mean time, adults might offer the toddlers another play opportunity while waiting for their turn.

A sensitive adult can help children play successfully with each other. A child who has a difficult time playing with peers might play better with a little bit of help. The adult can also help toddlers’ continue to play together. Much like the Tasia and Jo Jo’s story earlier, it is not unusual for infants or toddlers to want a toy someone already has. When someone else is playing with a toy, it’s like a commercial that just makes that toy look like so much fun!

Sometimes kids can work these differences out without help. It can be very interesting to watch the negotiation! However, if it looks like children might start hurting each other, then an adult will need to step in and encourage children to find ways to solve the conflict. Very young children may need suggestions from an adult to come up with possible solutions to work out their negotiations. A caregiver may suggest children can trade toys, do something else until their friend is done with the toy, or ask the child for the toy when she is done.


Brown, Stuart, and Christopher Vaughan. 2009. Play: How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination, and invigorates the soul. New York: The Penguin Group.

Elkind, David. 2007. The power of play: How spontaneous, imaginative activities lead to happier, healthier children. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.

Gerber, Magda, and Allison Johnson. 1998. Your self-confident baby: How to encourage your child’s natural abilities—from the very start. New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Ginsburg, Kenneth R. 2007. The importance of play in promoting healthy child development and maintaining strong parent–child bonds. Pediatrics 119(1): 182–91.

Hughes, Fergus P. 2010. Children, play, and development. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Lieberman, Alicia F. 1993. The emotional life of the toddler. New York: The Free Press.

National Association for Sports and Physical Education. 2002. “Active Start: A Statement of Physical Activity Guidelines for Children Birth to Five Years,” American Alliance for Health Physical Education Recreation and Dance.

Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. 1990. Conventions of the Rights of the Child.

Shonkoff, Jack P., & Deborah A. Phillips, eds. 2000. From neurons to neighborhood: The science of early childhood development. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Zigler, Edward F., Dorothy G. Singer, Sandra Bishop-Josef, ed. 2004. Children’s play: The roots of reading. Washington, DC: ZERO TO THREE Press.

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