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The secret to child development… play



… and before you skip past this, racing out the door to work. Stop a moment. Let me explain how play can affect your child’s development.


Isn’t that just kids mucking about. Well, no…

This is what play really means for children.  

First, playing is 100% fundamental for a child’s happiness. Having fun, laughing, taking time for themselves, relaxing. Play is the work of childhood. Happy children, are less stressed and anxious and more resilient.  

For very young children all important learning takes place in the context of play. When you smile back, coo with your baby, point where they are pointing you are building brain circuits.  Keep reading to learn more about how play affects child development.

You might start with peekaboo with a tiny child, move on to pat-a-cake. All these attachment-based games, where you get down to the child’s level and follow their lead. These activities are known, by therapists as ‘Serve and Respond’.

Bare with me…

Your baby serves up an action and you respond to it. So they blink, you blink, you stick your tongue out and so do they, they throw a toy, you catch it and throw it back. Serve and Respond. These playful activities are what a babies brain needs to grow and babies love them.  

But play doesn’t stop with young babies.  

A recent study from Cambridge University suggests that children who are better at playing with friends aged 3 will experience better mental health. 

Do they need you to watch or jump right in?  

How a child plays changes all the time. Sometimes they might be happy to play alone, sometimes they will want you or friends to join them. Take the chance to stop and watch them play for a moment, if you join in, how will it change their play.

Sometimes it can be tough for us adults to know if a child wants to play. They don’t always just ask. They might pull silly faces at you, loiter near you, do something they know annoys you. If they want your attention, why not give them the positive attention play can bring.  

Thirdly, playing makes us happier too.

And happy parents, means even happier children.  Take ten minutes right now. Prioritise playing with your kids. Go and kick a ball around with them, break out a hula hoop or fill up some water balloons and target Mum. Children love it when we play with them, so don’t just take a supervisory role… climb, swing, bounce, pick up a controller. Where you see an opportunity join in and play together. Just be careful to not take charge.  

But play is messy 

Often when children play it can seem messy. Lean into it, but set some ground rules. Have clothes ready you don’t mind getting dirty. If it is wet play, think about starting in the bathroom or even better in the garden. Cover everything in an old shower curtain, and plan for the best. Before you start discuss your ground rules with you children, if you don’t want poster paint on the Chesterfield, let them know. Also, get them involved in the clean up… it will give them a measure of how much mess they are comfortable with.  

Consider taking your child’s play outside 

As far back as the 19th Century, Frederick Froebel, a german scholar who got kids coined the term kindergarten. Children’s Garden. He believed being in nature and outdoor games would benefit children’s development.  

Play keeps kids fit, and us too. 

Most children don’t get the 60 minutes of physical activity recommended for them per day. So, playing hide and seek, racing your bike round the streets, climbing trees… well that is also all secret exercise!  

and finally…

Play is a child’s right 

Last of all, if I haven’t convinced you yet. Remember play is an actual right for children.  Article 31 of the UNCRC is simply thought of as the child’s right to play.The fundamental importance of play to children’s health and wellbeing. Chores, homework and organised clubs and activities are a barrier to your child playing freely at home. Embrace boredom and make time for your kids to play, at home or outside. You’ll see the benefits.  

Here are some cheap but very cheerful ideas for play this summer. 

Set up a shop, school, hospital, café 

Gather your wares from round the home and set out your stall. Raid the recycling for old packaging. Set a theme and let your children’s imagination lead the way. 

Chalk drawing 

If you have a patio or a backwall, channel your inner Mondrian and get creative. It’ll all wash away in the rain.  

Start your own band 

Shoe box guitars, pots and pans for a drum kit. Get your tecno-teenagers to be the band’s videographer or put on a show.  

Dressing up Dad-Day 

Let your children take the lead, will they dress you as a Mummy, a Knight, a Cowboy a Spaceman. Old Foil, Sheets, tissue paper. How long you are prepared to stay in character is down to you.  

Den building 

Surprise your kids in the morning, by already having gotten out old sheet, blankets, pegs, cardboard boxes and watch them turn old household junk into castles. Cathedrals and forts. The sky is the limit.  

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