The Importance of Play

The Importance of Play

By Dr. Kirsten Kuzirian,
A child psychologist,
Owner of Napa & Folsom Child Wellness,


Play is really important for your child’s growth and development, second only to their relationship with you. As a child psychologist, I focus on how play impacts:

– Physical Development: Fine and gross motor, feeding, sleeping, and potty-training.

– Cognitive Development: Language, memory, attention, processing, and perception.

– Social Skills: Theory of Mind (the ability to conceptualize what another person may be thinking or feeling), communication, reciprocation, negotiation, empathy, and leadership.

– Emotional Wellness: Resilience, assertiveness, flexibility, ability to self-soothe and emotional-regulation.

– Academic Functioning: Problem-solving, listening, following directions, curiosity, attention, and initiative.

What makes play such a powerful tool for development? Play is the language of children, so it is the most effective way to communicate with them and to communicate information to them. It is their natural mode for exploring their world. When we make time for play, we ensure they are learning what they need to know about their environment, their identity, their emotions, and much, much more!

Playing Together Helps You Bond. Play starts with attunement. If your child brings you a block or makes eye contact with you while dancing, they are asking you to join them in their play or at least become the “audience.” You learn about each other as you play. You learn how to communicate, what your interests are, and what is important to you both. This is also a really great moment to model your values to your child- by cleaning up, asking for a turn, including others, being thoughtful, sharing, helping, and accepting a loss with grace.
Imaginative Play Helps Your Child Understand Emotions. By playing pretend, your child actually gains clarity about what is real and what is not. This helps them with things like symbolism and a sense of humor. Pretend play also helps your child experience the feelings of others. Adults that lack this skill lose out on successfully building intimate and professional relationships. They may even have difficulty advocating for themselves because they just cannot put themselves in someone else’s shoes- even for their own gain! By pretending to be a character or multiple roles in one game, your child practices this ability to imagine what another person thinks, what motivates them, and how actions make them feel. This immediately benefits their relationships with friends and siblings, and later their ability to negotiate. Children also manage their emotions through imaginative play, so after a particularly difficult day, stay near and watch your child get to work with their stuffed animals, cars or dolls, to unpack, process, and make sense of their latest challenge.

Play Enhances Social Skills. When children play with other kids they learn how to enter or join a play activity, something we still have to do as adults when we don’t know anyone in the room. Play helps kids make friends, and again, not much changes into adulthood here. When there is an activity people enjoy or are skilled at, it is a great way to start bonding. Cooperative play requires our child to be adept at taking turns, sharing, learning someone else’s limits, and practicing patience. All these skills will help them maintain their future relationships as well! Social play also helps children practice being assertive, something that empowers little kids and could save your teenager’s life. That may sound dramatic, but think about how much practice is necessary to lead up to the moment your teen says, “No, I won’t get in that car, take that pill, or meet you there.” Even when your child is very young and may not play with other children regularly, they start the foundation of these social skills by playing with you and are much more prepared to make friends on the playground if they have had this opportunity.

Play Helps With Emotional Regulation. This is the ability to identify your own emotion and then manage it in a positive way- meaning the behavior is not harmful to the child or anyone else and it does not ruin relationships or goals. With play, children are learning all about their own emotions and they are learning what play activities soothe them. Parents, this is something we tend to notice! When our child becomes deeply engaged with an activity and starts to wind down, you can notice this aloud to help them begin to notice this as well. It helps remind them they have a space and hobby where they feel calm and centered. When your child becomes stressed out, they can use this play activity, sport, hobby, instrument, or art project to create meaning around what they are grappling with in their life. This also empowers them through self-expression.

Play for School Readiness. Play supports problem-solving, following directions, curiosity, and attention- all valuable for academic success. Play offers so many comfortable opportunities to engage with problem-solving. If a child is not given the chance to experiment with problem-solving, they will get really stressed out with work that does not require strictly rote memorization. Listening and following directions makes it easier for adults to communicate with them. Children can see the importance of this skill mostly during a game with other children, “If I want to participate, I better listen up or I will be out! And I don’t want to be out because I am having so much fun!” The practice of being curious and excited about games and activities supports their work in the classroom. The school day is long and maybe even grueling if your child is unable to connect what they are learning to the rest of their world. Even the most prepared and bright child will run into a subject they are not immediately skilled at and this is when their curiosity will be their saving grace to help them ask questions and not give up. Being able to explore our own interests helps to keep that aspect of our minds sharp. Think about the people you know that love learning about practically everything! They are open and curious! Attention is also important and this muscle is flexed when children are given the opportunity to deeply engage in an activity by themselves or with others. Passive engagement, the opposite of play, erodes our ability to attend to things (think about all the screens we are surrounded with and what inattentive zombies we look like when we are on them).

Improved Behavior. When children are given more time to play, especially with you, watch their behavior improve. Children seek parent or adult attention. They need a certain amount every single day. So next time you notice your child acting out, think about the last time you sat down and played together. Being present with your child is so important for both of you, and starting with 5 or 10 minutes a day, it will be noticed and appreciated by a child currently getting less. Sometimes parents will jump to, “Are you saying I need to play with my child all day long?” Not at all. We all need a little time to ourselves. Learning to be in our own company is a skill! Keep this on your radar and you will notice the balance. If you play with your child, they will eventually move on to something else (and that is an amazing feeling to outplay a child). Or if you have been doing your own thing, they will come get you and want to play in order to reconnect. If they are not used to playing with you, they will attempt to reconnect by doing something you aren’t fond of. That is a moment to check in and ask, “Have I clocked any play time today?” If you really cannot play with them, brainstorm, “Can I encourage solitary play that is active and engaging in place of a passive activity?” For example, art, riding a bike or playing dolls vs. watching TV or playing on an iPad.

Wondering how you can encourage play to ensure your child gets all these benefits? Start with these three steps!

Model. Your child learns the most from watching you. By playing and spending time with them, they learn to hold and drink from a cup, to tie their shoes, to open and close the door, to share with others, and to be assertive. When we are tuned into this, we naturally start talking about what we are doing and slowing down our pace so our little copycat can take watch and practice. When you are playing with them, they are especially engaged, so take this opportunity to model how to handle disappointment when they knock over your building, how to connect the train tracks or share with them. And when you sit down and engage fully with them, you are modeling how to be in the present moment. I think this is so valuable because we are teaching our child that they do not have to save their mindfulness work for the yoga mat or meditation pillow, we can bring this practice to all our activities!

Label. Talk about what you guys are playing with. If your child is taking care of a baby, describe all their actions, “You are placing the baby in the chair, you found his cereal, oh- you have the spoon and are using it to feed him.” I love this because it is the easiest thing to do and one of the most beneficial. We often have the urge to ask children a bunch of questions while they are playing- “What color is that? How many do you have there?” This pulls them out of the present and focused moment. It makes them have to attend to you vs. their own process of learning and creativity. Usually, the questions we want to ask have right or wrong answers, “No it’s blue honey! Not red!” There is nothing like getting an answer wrong or the fear of getting the answer wrong to shut down our initiative to explore and experiment- what we know encourages growth and learning. By simply labeling or describing, you are helping to put their internal world into words and they, like the rest of us, just want to be recognized for who they truly are. With labeling, you are planting the seeds for language skills, mindfulness, self-esteem and emotional wellness.

Be the Audience. If you feel a bit overwhelmed your self or for some reason are tongue-tied, just sit with your child. Watch what they are doing. Can you imagine what it means to them that you are taking the time to observe them vs. your phone, computer screen, other family members, a book, or chores? You are just watching them, and if you feel funny about this don’t worry, they will probably assign you a job fairly quickly. By watching, you allow them to set the tone of the play and you learn so much more about what they need to process (maybe it is an emotional issue or maybe they are really ready to master their handstand). By letting them choose, you are helping them to listen to their own wisdom and trust it. It’s also a fail-safe way to make sure that the activity is developmentally appropriate, so they get a sense of mastery from their activity, not a bunch of frustration trying to color in the lines like you. So, be their audience and let them lead the direction of the play.