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Why play is important

Play is key to your child’s learning, development, confidence and wellbeing. Unstructured, free play is the best type of play for young children.

The importance of play

Play is central to your child’s learning and development. When your child plays, it gives her lots of different ways and times to learn.

Play also helps your child:

  • build confidence
  • feel loved, happy and safe
  • develop social skills, language and communication
  • learn about caring for others and the environment
  • develop physical skills.

You don’t have to spend lots of money on toys, games and books for children. Homemade toys and free activities are often the most creative ways for you and your child to have fun together.

Tip: Your child will love playing with you, but sometimes she might prefer to play by herself. She might just want you to give her ideas and let her know how her play and games are going. And sometimes she might want to play with other children – no grown-ups allowed!


Different types of play

Unstructured, free play is the best type of play for young children.

This is play that just happens, depending on what takes your child’s interest at the time. Free play isn’t planned and lets your child use his imagination and move at his own pace.

Examples of unstructured play might be:

  • creative play alone or with others, including artistic or musical games
  • imaginative games – for example, making cubby houses with boxes or blankets, dressing up or playing make-believe
  • exploring new or favourite play spaces like cupboards, backyards, parks, playgrounds and so on.

You can be part of your child’s unstructured play – or not. Sometimes all you’ll need to do is point your child in the right direction – towards the jumble of dress-ups and toys on her floor, or to the table with crayons and paper. Sometimes you might need to be a bit more active. For example, ‘How about we play dress-ups? What do you want to be today?’

Structured play is different. It’s more organised and happens at a fixed time or in a set space. It’s often led by a grown-up.

Examples of structured play include:

  • water familiarisation classes for toddlers, or swimming lessons for older children
  • storytelling groups for toddlers and preschoolers at the local library
  • dance, music or drama classes for children of all ages
  • family board or card games
  • modified sports for slightly older children, such as rippa rugby.

Tip: Structured and unstructured play can happen indoors or outdoors. Outdoor play gives your child the chance to explore, be active, test physical limits – and get messy!


How play develops with your child

As your child grows, the way he plays will change – he’ll get more creative and experiment more with toys, games and ideas. This might mean he needs more space and time to play.

Also, children move through different forms of play as they grow. This includes playing alone, playing alongside other children and playing interactively with other children.


Newborns and babies: play ideas to encourage development

For babies, the best toy is you. Just looking at your face and hearing your voice is play for your new baby, especially if you’re smiling.

You might like to try the following play ideas and activities with your little one:

  • Music, songs, gentle tapping on your baby’s tummy while you sing, or bells: these activities develop hearing and movement.
  • Peekaboo: this is great for your baby’s social and emotional development.
  • Gentle tickles, or objects with different textures, like feathers, mud, metal or foam: these develop the sense of touch.
  • Objects of different sizes, colours and shapes: these can encourage your child to reach and grasp.
  • Sturdy furniture, balls, toys or boxes: these can get your child crawling, standing and walking.

Tip: Regular tummy time and floor play are very important. Tummy time helps your baby develop muscle strength and control. It also lets your baby see and experience the world from a different perspective.


Toddlers: play ideas to encourage development

Here are some ideas your toddler might enjoy:

  • Big and light things like cardboard boxes, buckets or blow-up balls can encourage your child to run, build, push or drag.
  • Chalk, rope, music or containers can encourage jumping, kicking, stomping, stepping and running.
  • Hoops, boxes, large rocks or pillows are good for climbing on, balancing, twisting, swaying or rolling.
  • Dress-up games with scarves, hats and so on are good for imagination and creativity.
  • Hills, tunnels or nooks can encourage physical activities like crawling and exploring.

Tip: If you put on some favourite music while your toddler plays, she can also experiment with different sounds and rhythms. You might also like to sing, dance and clap along to music with your child.


Preschoolers: play ideas to encourage development

Here are some ideas to get your preschooler’s mind and body going:

  • Old milk containers, wooden spoons, empty pot plant containers, sticks, scrunched-up paper, plastic buckets, saucepans and old clothes are great for imaginative, unstructured play.
  • Simple jigsaw puzzles and matching games like animal dominoes help improve your child’s memory and concentration.
  • Playdough and clay help your child develop fine motor skills.
  • Favourite music or pots and pans are great for a dance concert or to make up music.
  • Balls can encourage kicking, throwing or rolling.

Tip: When you’re encouraging your child to kick or throw, try to get him to use one side of his body, then the other.


School-age children: play ideas to encourage development

Your school-age child can have fun with the following objects and activities:

  • Furniture, linen, washing baskets, tents and boxes are great for building cubbyhouses.
  • Home-made obstacle courses can get your child moving in different ways, directions and speeds.
  • Games like ‘I spy’ are great for word play and help develop literacy skills.
  • Simple cooking and food preparation activities are great for developing numeracy and everyday skills.
  • Your child’s own imagination: with imagination, your child can turn herself into a favourite superhero or story character.

Tip: If your child is interested, you could think about getting him into some sports or team activities for school-age children. Other possibilities include after-school or holiday art and craft activities.


If your child doesn’t want to play

There might be times when your child doesn’t want to play – for example, he could be tired or bored by doing the same activity for too long. This is normal and usually nothing to worry about.

But sometimes a lack of play – or a lack of interest in play – can be a sign of a developmental disorder.

Consider speaking with a health professional or your child’s educator if:

  • your baby doesn’t seem to get into interactive play like peekaboo
  • your toddler has only a narrow interest in toys, or doesn’t use toys in a functional way – for example, is only interested in spinning the wheels of a toy car instead of driving it around the room like other children the same age
  • your preschooler isn’t interested in playing with other children, or isn’t interested in playing pretend games.


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