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How Does Play Help Children Develop?

by Becky Swain

Parents recognize the value of their children’s play, and may join the fun with their child. It may surprise you to learn that the benefits of your child’s play extend far beyond obtaining physical exercise and utilizing a growing imagination. Your child’s play exerts a positive influence on her physical, psychosocial and cognitive development with lasting benefits.

Builds Psychosocial Development

Play builds emotional and social skills that enable your child to make friends, acquire self-regulation, practice empathy and increase self-esteem. Pretending to be someone else nurtures empathy as children explore emotions from a new perspective. According to AskDr.Sears.com, your child’s participation in games and imaginative play encourages interaction with peers and family. For example, your child learns that others are more likely to play with her when she demonstrates cooperation, shares, takes turns and follows rules. These social skills produce positive outcomes for all participants, and increase the likelihood that the children will want to repeat the activity.

Builds Cognitive Development

PBS reports that play benefits cognitive development by providing attractive opportunities to utilize divergent thinking, problem solving and language skills. For example, determining how to implement the rules of a game, creating an appropriate make-believe setting or enacting a new character’s role, requires that children think through the dilemma, or problem solve to discover a pleasing outcome for every play participant. Children build oral language skills as they communicate with peers during play, and these skills generalize to other activities.

Builds Physical Development

The benefits of play also extend to the physical domain of child development. According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children, play builds your child’s gross and fine motor development. Artistic and building activities encourage fine motor development. Some children struggle to reach gross and fine motor milestones without the adequate opportunities for practicing and perfecting skills that play provides. Play promotes resilient bone and muscle growth that enhance motor development. Children are more likely to engage in active forms of exercise in the future when they can demonstrate the motor skills required for the task, and these skills are acquired through play.

Encouraging Play

The educational website Scholastic.com suggests that parents reserve approximately one hour of time to give children the time to think about and enact a single play activity theme. A generous assortment of simple props is ideal, but don’t assume that your child naturally understands how to use each prop – model how to incorporate several objects into a play scenario. For example, you can say, “I can pretend that this box is my delivery truck.” Include individuals from routine errands to explore and enact in a future play activity. For example, “Mr. Rigby is a librarian. He helped us locate the zoo animal babies book, and then Mr. Rigby scanned the book and my library card.”

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