Play helps children feel good about themselves and is critical to building their social and emotional skills.

Children learn more in the first few years than they learn at any other stage of their lives. Young children learn through their relationships with others and the world around them and they learn through play.

What is play and why is it important?

Children need to play for healthy development; it’s a way for children to express their feelings even before they have the words to say how they feel.

In play, children are in charge of what they do and being in control in play helps them to learn to manage their feelings.

As well as contributing to emotional development and building confidence in their own ability, children’s play is important for developing and learning the social skills that will be the foundation for children’s future relationships.

When children make or build things in their play, they are building skills and confidence in themselves. They are also learning about the give and take of relationships with their friends, learning to lead and follow and to care for others.

Play can also be a healing experience for a child after challenging times because it involves the child feeling secure in their relationships with adults and feeling free to be themselves.

Six ways to support children’s play 

Some of the ways that adults can support children’s play include:

1. Helping children feel safe and be safe

Parents and carers can help children feel safe and be safe in play by providing safe boundaries and limits on their play. Adult supervision and guidance is needed to ensure that children are playing safely and are not at risk of hurting themselves or anyone else around them.

2. Providing a time and a place for play

Try to make it possible for children to finish play that they are very involved in before having to move on to do something else. If something else can’t wait, give children warning of the change. The play space may be able to be protected so the game can be continued later. For example, providing a play table rather than using the kitchen table as a play space (which has to be cleared for meals), enables play experiences to be stopped and started by the child.

3. Following the child’s lead

Children need opportunities to play and work out feelings in their own way. Parents and carers can show support by being near, noticing and accepting what the child is playing rather than directing or taking the lead away from the child. For example, when the adult says: "I see you are singing your baby to sleep in the cradle", they are supporting the child’s play. If the parent or carer says: "Now the baby is asleep what do you think the mother will do next?” they are directing and taking the lead away from the child.

4. Offering guidance and support

Play is also an important time for teaching children about relationships. Just having a parent or carer sitting near a game to watch and occasionally comment on what is happening can help children to notice how their behaviour might be affecting others and develop empathy for others. For example, a parent or carer might say: "I can see that Victor is not letting Amar play and Amar looks sad and left out". You could also ask Amar how he feels and Victor what he is wanting from the game.

5. Providing things for children to play with

Children will find many things to play with around the house or outside in the garden, in parks and playgrounds. These include things like pots and pans to put things in and pour with, low walls to walk along, cushions to crawl over, pegs to put into small holes and sort into colours, everyday clothes to dress up in, and brooms and garden spades to practise being grown up. Seeing what your child enjoys doing will give you more ideas of the things they may like to play with. They may ask for particular toys or books that relate to their current interests. Finding children something they really love can help them to know that their likes and dislikes are valued and respected and helps build their sense of self.

6. Providing opportunities for children to play with others

Children benefit from playing on their own, with other children of varying ages and with adults. However children can easily become overwhelmed and tired if there are too many children or not enough things to go around. Parents and carers can support children’s play by keeping playdates manageable for the child, not too long and with not too many people.

For more information

Play helps children feel good about themselves