Play to Heal, Learn, and Grow: The Top 3 Social and Emotional Benefits of Play

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Play to Heal, Learn, and Grow: The Top 3 Social and Emotional Benefits of Play

March 31, 2020
posted by Danielle Rothman


As a play therapist, I use play to help children express feelings they might not be able to convey in words. Kids have emotions as complex as any adult but often lack the vocabulary or awareness to talk about what they are experiencing. Using play to communicate bridges this gap. This is more important than ever as families continue to face challenges as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As a mother, I am always thinking about the importance of play in my own home, especially over the last couple of months as my husband and I have been helping our toddler adjust to his new life as a big brother. For my son, playing with a baby doll has allowed him to safely express the wide range of feelings he has about his new baby sister while also giving him the opportunity to practice his diapering and bottle-feeding skills so that he feels involved.

Yes, play keeps our kids occupied as we try to cook, work, and accomplish other mundane tasks of daily life but play is so much more important than just a diversion. Play is the most important learning tool children have, especially when it comes to regulating emotions, developing social skills, and increasing the capacity for thinking independently - skills that cannot truly be learned from books, apps, or YouTube videos. Access to a variety of play activities is essential for healthy child development and these are three of the most important things that children learn from play:


  1. Expression of Feelings & Emotional Regulation: Play is how children learn to manage their emotions and cope with challenging situations. Through play, children can express feelings like anger and fear in a safe, contained environment in which they are in charge.  For example, I worked with a child whose mother was in the hospital for a serious illness. This child was able to work through her rage and terror regarding her mother’s illness by using dolls to act out various scenarios such as yelling at a doctor who she perceived as unable to help her mother. Through play, she was able to express her feelings in a way that was comfortable and natural for her. Further, play gave her the ability to act out a situation that would have been unlikely to occur in real life.  Even when there is no specific emotionally challenging event to deal with, children engage in games that allow them to safely express aggression. For example, playing sports allows children to learn to manage the feelings of anger, fear, and frustration that occur in day-to-day interactions, such as conflict with a sibling or classmate.

TIP: Provide your children with a range of play materials including dolls, pretend play objects, building blocks, and craft materials, as well as the opportunity to engage in both unstructured and structured play. These steps will ensure that they have access to the tools the need to learn to manage their emotions.


  1. Social Skills & Empathy: Play teaches children how to get along with other people and function in society. Play with others requires children to negotiate and compromise, notice social cues, listen to others, follow rules, and take the perspective of another person. For example, a preschooler playing house must consider what role is filled by the adults in a family and a school-aged child playing Connect Four must think about what move their opponent might make. The skills learned through collaborative play provide the foundation for healthy social interactions later in life.

TIP: Make sure your child has frequent opportunities to engage with peers outside of school by arranging regular play dates and having your child participate in one or two group activities. For the foreseeable future, try arranging phone calls or virtual play dates to maintain peer relationships.


  1. Independent Thinking & Problem-Solving Skills: As much as play teaches children how to engage with others, it also provides them with the skills needed to function independently. Opportunities to engage in imaginative play allow children to think creatively and gain confidence in their own ideas. As children make choices in their play, such as selecting a game, they learn to trust in their ability to make decisions. When challenges arise in play and adults give children the chance to work things out on their own, children learn to come up with solutions and solve problems. Play provides even very young children with opportunities to plan, pay attention, and complete tasks in situations that are natural and enjoyable for them. Developing these skills (referred to as “executive functioning”) through play will help children to perform better academically down the road and make good decisions as they get older.

TIP: Give your child time for unstructured, solo play. When playing with your child, provide them with opportunities to take the lead in play, allow them to make mistakes, and encourage them to devise their own solutions to problems.