The Right to Play

Early childhood development depends on new experiences and play is the way that children develop social skills, problem solving ability, and emotional functioning.1  In the words of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, play is a fundamental right of childhood.2 Babies’ brains do not need expensive toys to develop to their full potential. Being able to explore the world around them from the safety of a loving home is much more important than the toys in a baby’s room.  Above all, a child’s development is strengthened when they have a loving, interactive parent to encourage their play.

Play and Parental Relationships

Research indicates that when caregivers engage in play with their children, those children develop stronger social skills and peer relationships, more secure attachment and even higher cognitive functioning.3,4 Caregivers can help their children develop these skills, and increase their self-confidence through child directed play. During child-directed playtime, caregivers devote their full attention to their child, while letting the child dictate the game that they will play.

This type of attention strengthens the bond between children and caregivers. During playtime, caregivers promote optimal development through praise, particularly where a child may be having trouble.  Typically, for example, children get frustrated when their block tower falls.  By saying “I am proud of you for starting over again,” when the child reaches for the fallen blocks, a parent helps their child learn problem solving skills and perseverance. Imitating a child during playtime also builds a child’s confidence by telling them that their caregiver likes what they are doing. For example, a toddler twirling around the living room saying, “Look at me! This is fun!” would benefit from a caregiver just paying attention to them, but it would be even better for the child if their caregiver joined in the fun and shared in the joy of their child by also twirling around the living room. Simply put, when caregivers play and praise their children, children feel as though their caregivers enjoy spending time with them.5

Get to Know Your Child Through Play

Children are not only the ones who benefit from play.  In fact, play between caregivers and children offers parents insights into their children. When caregivers and children play together, caregivers gain a better understanding of their little one’s worldview and can learn to communicate better with their child.

Caregivers also foster the development of secure attachments at an early age through play. Through child-parent play, caregivers better understand their child’s strengths, weaknesses, and preferences. Your child may love toys that make music. He may be especially good at puzzles, or he may need extra help knowing the difference between colors. When there are brothers and sisters in the picture, it can be hard to find the time to play with each child, but finding ways to give each child special attention is important. When children have their parents’ undivided attention, they gain self-esteem and feel unique from the other siblings.  Like adults, children have their own personalities. The most important thing is that your child knows that you want to spend time with them, whether playing, reading, telling stories or just sitting together during their special time.

Play and School Readiness

Children learn about cooperation, following directions, and sharing through play. Simple pretend play or imaginative play helps to prepare children to start school. Pretend play involves an imaginary situation (like searching for treasure on an island), assigned roles for different players (like an explorer and a guide), and language.6 This type of play helps to build self-regulation, social skills, language, and early literacy.7 Being able to practice pretend play with children of different ages can improve a child‘s social skills and cognitive development.

Tips for Caregivers to Encourage Brain Development Through Play6,7,8,9

  • Allow your child to direct playtime.  Let him choose the toy or game, and decide how to play with it. Even if your child is not using the toy in the “right” way, it is good for them to explore how different things can be used.
  • Respect your child’s play style and join the fun.
  • Describe the different qualities (color, shape, size, texture, weight) of things your young child chooses to play with.
  • Praise your child for using their imagination and play along with them. Sometimes a caregiver can also be a super hero sidekick, a patient in a doctor’s office, or a student in a classroom.
  • Play can happen anywhere. Go for a walk and explore the outdoors. Smell flowers, touch leaves and point out the many sights and colors outside. Allow your child to explore and play!
  • Set up play dates, or take your child to a park or other places they can interact with other children. This provides opportunities to teach and model sharing, taking turns and cooperation as your child grows into those skills.

Kagan, S.L., Scott-Little, C., Frelow, V.S. (2009). Linking play to early learning and development guidelines: Possibility or polemic? Zero to Three, 30(1), 18-25.

Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. (1989.) Convention on the Rights of the Child. Article 31, No.1. Retrieved June 6, 2012. Available here.

MacDonald, K., & and Parke, R.D. (1984). Bridging the gap: Parent-child play interaction and peer interactive competence. Child Development, 55(4), 1265-1277.

Roggman, L.A. (2009). Keeping kids on track: Impacts of a parenting-focused Early Head Start program on attachment security and cognitive development. Early Education and Development, 20(6), 920-941. doi: 10.1080/10409280903118416

Cartwright-Hatton, S., Laskey, B., Rust, S., & McNally, D. (2010).  From Timid To Tiger: A Treatment Manual for Parenting the Anxious Child. West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

Bodrova, E., & Leong, D. J. (1998). Adult influences on play: The Vygotskian approach. In D. P. Fromberg & D. Bergen (Eds.), Play from birth to twelve and beyond: Contexts, perspectives and meanings (pp. 277–288). New York: Garland Press.

Bredekamp, S. (2004). Play and school readiness. In E. F. Zigler, D. G. Singer, & S. J. Bishop-Josef (Eds.), Children’s Play: The Roots of Reading (pp. 159–174). Washington, DC: ZERO TO THREE (

Parlakian, R., & Lerner, C. (2009). Practical Tips and Tools: The truth about play. Zero to Three, 30(1), 56-57.

Armbruster, B.B., Lehr, F., & Osborn, J. (2006). A child becomes a reader: Proven ideas from research for parents: Birth through preschool. National Institute for Literacy.