The Importance Of Play: Why Play Matters

A Right of Every Child

Play is essential to optimal child development. Every child should have the opportunity to play. Play has been categorised in a variety of ways – each with its own developmental sequence. And all these types of play are all linked to social and academic development. Play is that crucial to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children that it has been recognised by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights as a right of every child.

Article 31: 1. States Parties recognize the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.

Article 31: 2. States Parties shall respect and promote the right of the child to participate fully in cultural and artistic life and shall encourage the provision of appropriate and equal opportunities for cultural, artistic, recreational and leisure activity.

A Long History

The study of play has a long history. Purposes of play in children’s development and the reason children play have been researched for well over a century by scholars and thinkers from a range of disciplines. Before the 19th and early 20th centuries, theories on play are largely philosophical.

Play allows children to practice adult roles and instills in them skills that will later be necessary for survival – Karl Groos, Play of Man.

Play is a cathartic activity that eliminates inappropriate primitive instincts that were passed down through heredity – G. Stanley Hall, The Sage Handbook Of Outdoor Play And Learning.

Modern theories that emerged after 1920, however, are largely supported by empirical research. They define play as a scheme that promotes cognition or symbolisation. Sigmund Freud, for example, observed that children used play as a means to overcome their own concealed feelings. Jean Piaget, on the other hand, defined play as assimilation, or the child’s efforts to make environmental stimuli match his or her own concepts.

Academic Enhancement Through Play

A growing body of evidence continues to suggest that children are likely to demonstrate their most advanced language skills during play and that these language skills are strongly related to emergent literacy. Prominent Early Childhood Literacy researchers, Kathleen Roskos and James Christie, in the journal they’ve co-authored, concluded that, “play provides settings that promote literacy activity, skills, and strategies . . . and can provide opportunities to teach and learn literacy.”

Social Enhancement Through Play

Children learn to manage their own behaviour and emotions through play. Eric F. Dubow, PhD, professor of psychology at Bowling Green State University, in his journal, stated that play, be they free play or guided play can help foster social competence, confidence and self-regulation among children. In free play, for instance, children can learn how to negotiate with others, to take turns, and to manage themselves and others.

Indeed, Haight, Black, Jacobsen, and Sheridan, in the book that they’ve co-authored, Play = Learning: How Play Motivates and Enhances Children’s Cognitive and Social-Emotional Growth, asserted that through pretend play, which is a sub-category of play, traumatised children can work through their problems. What’s more, pretend play also allows adults to learn about children.

The Benefits of Play

Do not underestimate the value of play. Children, in fact, learn and develop through their play. By simply playing, a child can develop and improve his/her cognitive skills, physical abilities, new vocabulary, social skills, and literacy skills. Play is simple and complex and is more than meets the eyes. Play helps your children grow emotionally, strong and healthy. A lot has been written on play and its benefits. David Elkind’s The Power of Play is one of them.

Most of us engaged in the study of play consider it a form of exercise for creative dispositions—for imagination, for curiosity, for fantasy. We believe it has a vital role in human development. Through play, children create new learning experiences, and these self-created experiences enable them to acquire social, emotional, and intellectual skills they could not acquire in any other way. Yet play has currently fallen into some disrepute. School administrators and teachers—frequently backed by goal-oriented politicians and parents—broadcast the not-so-subtle message that these days play seems superfluous, that at bottom play is for slackers, that if kids must play, they should at least learn something while they are doing it! – David Elkind, The Power of Play

How Often Should Children Play

It’s vital that children have enough time to plan and carry out their play. That said, play period should at least last 30 to 40 minutes. Longer play periods foster higher social and cognitive forms of play. They allow play to evolve in different directions. Shorter play periods, on the other hand, tend to disrupt, interrupt, alter and disengage children’s attention and involvement in play.

Children who are given unlimited time for play are more likely to be able to devise imaginative situations, to follow through their discoveries and work out their problems than children whose play has often been cut short at the most interesting point. If children know from experience that play in school must be completed within a short time, or if left unfinished cannot be carried over to another time or day, then they’ adapt’ their play to suit their time allocation –  Kathleen Manning & Ann Sharp, Structuring Play in the Early Years at School


Providing an appropriate space for play is one of the most powerful ways an adult can influence children’s play. Play and learning go hand in hand. They are intertwined and they aren’t two separate activities. The data are clear. Play is important to healthy brain development.

It is through play that children at a very early age engage and interact in the world around them. Play allows children to create and explore a world they can master, conquering their fears while practicing adult roles, sometimes in conjunction with other children or adult caregivers – Kenneth R. Ginsburg, The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds.


Convention on the Rights of the Child. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Waller, T. (2017). The Sage handbook of outdoor play and learning. Los Angeles: SAGE Reference.

Mayesky, M. (2009). Creative activities for young children. Clifton Park, NY: Delmar.

Roskos, Kathleen & Christie, James. (2001). Examining the Play–Literacy Interface: A Critical Review and Future Directions. Journal of Early Childhood Literacy. 1. 59-89. 10.1177/14687984010011004.

Connolly, J. A., & Doyle, A.-B. (1984). Relation of social fantasy play to social competence in preschoolers. Developmental Psychology, 20(5), 797–806.

Singer, D. G., Golinkoff, R. M., & Hirsh-Pasek, K. (2006). Play=learning: how play motivates and enhances childrens cognitive and social-emotional growth. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Heidemann, S., Hewitt, D., & Heidemann, S. (2010). Play: the pathway from theory to practice. St. Paul, MN: Redleaf Press.

Cody, T. (1994). A play based early childhood education environment: a handbook for childcare workers (Doctoral dissertation, Lethbridge, Alta.: University of Lethbridge, Faculty of Education, 1994).

Yogman, M., Garner, A., Hutchinson, J., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Golinkoff, R. M., & Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health. (2018). The power of play: A pediatric role in enhancing development in young children. Pediatrics142(3), e20182058.

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We take our responsibilities seriously as a provider of free parenting resources. Our published articles are therefore written based on evidence-based information parents can rely on. Parenthood is hard. But it’s also the most rewarding. Our first goal is thus to make sure our content is concise, accurate and accessible.