Play's Powerful Role in Child Development

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Play's Powerful Role in Child Development

February 24, 2020
posted by Colleen Beck

It’s through play that kids develop the essential skills they need to function in life. 

They say “play is the work of a child”, but the thing is that play is much more than the laborious endeavors that come to mind when we think “work”. You may have heard this well-known quote about play and work by Maria Montessori. Most occupational therapists agree with this statement. They know that children learn, grow, and master skills through play. It’s through a child’s daily play activities that they develop the skills needed for learning and function. In this blog post, we’ll discuss the powerful role that play has on child development. 

Play is a child’s primary occupation. You might be thinking, “Ok…occupation means work, and we know that play is a child’s main job.” But it’s more than that; the term “occupation” can also refer to the tasks that occupy one’s time. Occupational therapists help people achieve function in meaningful and purposeful tasks, or their daily occupations. A child’s primary occupation (or the tasks that take up meaningful time during their day) is play. Moreover, play is also the building block for children to perform functional tasks. Things like writing, reading, riding a bike, managing one’s emotions, getting dressed, and other everyday activities all have their roots in play. It’s through play activities that kids develop gross and fine motor skills, learning, critical thinking, language, executive functioning skill development, interpersonal skills, and so much more. 

Read on to learn specifics about how play impacts child development in big ways. Let’s talk play! 


5 Ways Play Helps Kids Develop Skills


1. Play Builds Gross Motor Skills

Gross motor skills start developing from the very beginning. When a tiny baby kicks and reaches for toys, lays on their belly in tummy time, and begins to crawl, they are developing the elements that drive higher level skills. Activities like catching and throwing a ball or sitting upright at a desk in the classroom are founded in gross motor development. When babies start to play with toys, crawl, and cruise along furniture, they are building their core strength that provides stability for tasks they will complete down the road. Gross motor skills like running, rolling, climbing, hopping, or skipping occur during play as kids innately practice moving in a variety of positions. Activities like pretend play, moving over couch cushions, climbing playground equipment, running around outside, and throwing and catching balls, all develop and refine those gross motor skills for greater accuracy, coordination, and endurance in things kids need to do every day.

2. Play Develops Fine Motor Skills

When we talk about fine motor skills, we’re talking about more than holding a pencil or managing a zipper. Fine motor skills are necessary for almost every task that a child completes. These essential skills depend on development and stability in the core (or the mid-section and belly, also known as your trunk). Strength and stability in the shoulder and arm allow for refined and coordinated use of the hands. Play provides a means for developing and cultivating fine motor skills. By exploring and manipulating small objects like beads, stamps, snapping blocks, and other toys, children can gain strength and precision in their hands, so that coordinated and efficient use of a pencil or scissors becomes fluid and natural. There’s more: by playing small objects with the hands, children develop eye-hand coordination, or coordinated use of the hands and eyes, which is necessary for reading, writing, self-care, managing containers, cutting with scissors, and almost every other task.

3. Play Improves Executive Functioning

Skills like attention, working memory, task completion, imitation and other executive functioning skills develop through play and have a lasting impact on higher level cognitive tasks. Executive functioning guides everything we do. Making decisions, being flexible in thought, remembering important details, staying on topic, and being organized are skills that have their roots in play. Play offers a powerful tool to help kids build experience in executive functioning. It’s through play that kids get practice in understanding these skills, and in fun ways. Pretend play situations can help a child practice regulation and multi-tasking. Games and puzzles build skills in multi-tasking, working memory, and impulse control. Crafts and creative play can help kids hone their ability to filter out unnecessary information and allow them to plan, prioritize and see a project through to completion. While executive functioning skills don’t fully develop until early adulthood, play creates a foundation for these essential skills.

4. Play Promotes Self-Confidence

Sometimes we hear kids exclaim, “I can’t!” or “That’s too hard.” While it can be difficult to help kids see that they can try at those hard tasks, it’s encouraging to see more information in schools and online that touts the benefits of raising kids with a growth mindset. Nurturing resilience in kids helps them succeed at things that they may think are hard to do. It gives them the confidence to try and a willingness to learn new things. This self-confidence ability has its roots in play. By playing with new activities, games, or acting out pretend play situations, children can try new things, practice tasks they’ve observed grownups doing, and explore. By playing with blocks, for example, children can build a tower that might get knocked down. However, when it does fall over, they can try again while viewing the process as a chance to learn or try a new way to build that tower. Play offers children the opportunities to genuinely enjoy the process of developing new skills through feedback and practice. There’s more: kids can build self-confidence through play as a way to practice language, movements, and understanding how their bodies and the world around them works.

5. Play Helps with Sensory Processing

Our senses are more than what we see, hear, taste, smell, and feel. The ability to take in sensory information and use it to function accordingly is sensory processing. It’s the way our bodies organize information from the world around us so we can move, perceive, and use that information. Through play, children understand how their body works as they learn and integrate that sensory information. Play allows kids to become aware of their body’s movement as they jump, roll, spin, and tumble upside down. Kids can experience a variety of textures through messy play, or by playing with flowers, mud or rocks, which helps them gain controlled and coordinated use of their hands. They gain an understanding of how their body is positioned in space by moving heavy objects, pushing, pulling, climbing, and carrying items in play. Play provides sensory-based opportunities for discovery and learning as children build experiences with their world around them.


Bringing It All Together


You can see how all of these developmental areas build on one another. They are integrated. Gross motor development is essential for fine motor skill work. Sensory processing allows for self-confidence in movement and experience. Participating in activities build executive functioning skills. Seeing activities through to fruition allows for engagement and learning. All of these developmental areas are inter-related and occurring simultaneously. It’s through play that children acquire these skills. Play is the means and the work for kids, and that work is so important. It’s also so much fun!


Colleen Beck, OTR/L