Essential Play Skills for Children

Importance of Play

Play is how children learn about and interact with the world around them pressure free. It assists children in the development of a variety of important skills including confidence, creativity, imagination, problem solving, social interaction, following directions, adapting, and taking risks.

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Structured and Unstructured Play

Play can be either structured or unstructured. Structured play tends to be more goal-oriented and involves following some sort of rules or routine set by others. Puzzles and board games are examples of structured play.

Unstructured play is more creative in nature. It occurs when a child plays in any way that is fun to them without a specific set of rules set by others. Examples include playing kitchen or dress-up as well as playing outside on the playground. Children benefit from both structured and unstructured play times.

Types of Play

Experts describe a variety of types of play and sometimes refer to the types by slightly different names. I am dividing play into 4 types for this post. These types of play develop at different ages but are all important for language development.

1. Functional Play

This type of play occurs when children practice mental schemes by interacting with objects and people. Examples of this type of play include banging objects, exploring books, stacking blocks, and rolling a car. This type of play is generally repetitive in nature and begins as early as 6-8 months.

The development of functional play increases a child’s knowledge of basic skills such as object function, cause and effect, and hand-eye coordination. This is the most basic level of play in which a child begins to learn about the world around them. Functional play is foundational for the other types of play listed below.

Parents can promote functional play by simply providing basic toys and modeling play with them. Blocks, cars, balls, and toy animals are great for this. Labeling items and using simple words and phrases during play will help promote receptive and expressive language learning.

Essential play skills for children
Functional Play

2. Symbolic Play

Symbolic play is the ability to use objects or actions to represent other objects or actions. For example, using a hairbrush as a microphone or a shoe as a telephone would be examples of symbolic play. This type of play may begin as early as 18 months.

Symbolic play promotes both cognitive and social development by allowing a child to begin problem solving and seeing another’s perspective. This type of play in particular shows a strong correlation to a child’s language development, meaning that generally the better a child’s symbolic play is the higher his language skills will be.

Again, parents can promote this type of play by providing simple toys such as baby dolls, kitchen sets, blocks, animals, etc. Non-toy items such as a cardboard box or empty paper towel roll can also promote symbolic play.

3. Pretend Play

Pretend play takes symbolic play a step further. It involves engaging in different roles during symbolic play. Playing house or dress-up are examples of this type of play. Children may assign roles such as who is the “mom” when playing house or who is the “princess” when playing dress-up. Typically, children begin pretend play around the 3 year mark.

Pretend play helps a child practice certain cognitive skills that are too advanced for them outside of play. For example, a child may be able to assign roles while playing house such as who is the mom, dad, and baby. However, that same child would be unable to assign roles to complete a project.

Kitchen sets, baby dolls, stuffed animals, costumes for dress-up, pirate swords, etc. are good toys for pretend play. The best way to encourage your child in pretend play is to model it for them. You may ask your child if she wants to go on a picnic with you and her baby doll. Then, you can set the scene with play food items and engage in pretend play together.

Additionally, playing with older children may increase your child’s pretend play skills. My oldest is almost 3 years old as I write this post. We have regular play dates with a little girl that is exactly a year older than him. I truly feel that his play skills have developed faster due to his playtime with her.

4. Game Play

Game play is more structured in nature and includes things such as team sports and board games. This type of play can start very simple for a 2-3 year old and move to more complex play as your child ages. (My husband and I still LOVE to play card games and board games as adults!)

Game play teaches your child to follow a set of rules in order to play a game with others. It also provides an avenue for your child to experience success and learn how to deal with failure. Explaining to a 3 year old that they will not always win can be scary but it’s better to start that lesson early!

Early game play could include matching games or simple board games such as Gone Fishin’, Candy Land, or Hungry, Hungry Hippos. Hide and Seek could even be considered game play as it has a certain set of rules.

In closing, have FUN with your kiddos and don’t stress, because the main thing they need (besides love and support) to learn is simply time to PLAY! Before ending this post I will leave you with the following quote.

“Play gives children a chance to practice what they are learning.” -Mr. Rogers

I hope you found this information encouraging!


Bonus: Here are some fun indoor play activities to try with you kiddo!

Essential play skills for children-children learn through play
Essential play skills for children-children learn through play
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