The Amazing Power of Play

From a baby’s first social smiles to the imaginative games of a preschooler, playtime sets the foundation for learning and healthy relationships. But in an era of overscheduled kids and overworked parents, kids aren’t getting enough of it.

What exactly is play? According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), it’s any activity that is voluntary and “results in joyful discovery.” To put it simply: “There are really no rules or expectations. The only expectation is that you have fun,” says Kathleen Hill, a licensed therapist with Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Strong4Life.

9 month old playing on floor

Studies have shown that play actually changes kids’ brains, improving “executive functioning”—the skills needed to set goals, plan and finish tasks. Because playtime sparks creativity and independence, notes the AAP, it also prepares kids for a future where the best jobs will be all about innovation.

Play builds important social skills. By playing with your child, you teach her how to win and lose, take turns, role play and find her passions. And of course, play is fun! Kids who play more are less anxious, and playing has been shown to lower cortisol, the stress hormone.

dad reading to toddler in blanket fort

Have you ever shared your favorite children’s book with your child, or re-learned the rules of the backyard games you enjoyed as a kid? By playing with your child, you rekindle your own childlike joy and sense of humor.

Most importantly, playtime is bonding time. You get to know your child’s personality and see how she thinks. By having fun together, you can better communicate when times get tough.

Play doesn’t have to cost money or take tons of time. On a busy weeknight, it can be as simple as having a quick dance party to a favorite song or letting your child comment and ask questions during story time. “It’s just a time to have fun, be silly and connect.” says Hill. 

dad playing with toddler in backyard

Even the simplest games have big benefits. Here are some common types of play and how they help your child grow:

  • Object play: Whether it’s a baby mouthing a toy or a toddler using a banana as a telephone, playing with objects teaches motor skills, language and abstract thought. Simple toys (even household items, such as pots and pans) tend to spark more brain power than electronic gadgets.
  • Outdoor play: Getting outside exercises kids’ bodies and minds and stimulates their senses. This is why schools that offer recess generally have greater academic success.
  • Physical or rough-and-tumble play: From pat-a-cake to playground games, kids learn motor skills and key social skills, such as how to win and lose, not be too rough and how to take risks.
  • Social or pretend play: Activities like dress-up, peekaboo, board games and imaginary scenarios (e.g., “You be the teacher, and I will be the student”) teach social skills and communication. Games like “Simon Says” or “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” teach executive functioning by asking a child to pay attention and control his impulses.

Don’t stress about checking all the playtime boxes. Just give your child a little time, space and attention, and the brain-boosting fun will flow.