Play for Kids

Child’s Play: The Long View

What does every parent want for their child? We want them to be happy, to have joy and meaning in their lives.

A mother cuddles on a sofa with her tween daughter, both beaming happily.

You can create the foundation for a joyful, fulfilling life for your children by identifying and nurturing their play nature when they are very young. A child’s play nature shows up in what they do when they are playing freely — without any adult direction — and in the activities that prompt glee.

Accurately identifying a young child’s play nature is the key to understanding what will make them happy all their life. Understanding your child’s play nature and fostering  opportunities to exercise that nature will help them build their best possible life. Also, a child’s play nature is often a clue about where their greatest talents will develop.

I have so many pictures of my son trying to figure out keyboards and electronics when he was a toddler. His older sister couldn’t have cared less about those things. She wanted to play with color and space and form.

Mother of a 21-year-old computer science student and a 28-year-old visual effects artist

Play Is Crucial for Early Childhood Development

Researchers have demonstrated that play is a deep-rooted biological process that is crucial to early childhood development. The biology of play has evolved over eons because play promotes learning and adaptability, and thus survival. Humans, particularly children, learn most effectively through play. In the longer term, play in youth fosters empathy and creativity and builds the social-emotional skills needed to function in social groups.

Play Video

This two-minute clip from “See How They Play,” a 29 minute educational video from Resources of Infant Educarers (RIE) highlights the simplicity and joy of free play for infants and young children.

What Brings Your Child the Most Fulfillment?

From birth, having free play time develops confidence and fosters the play preferences that are determined by the play circuits pre-wired in our brain. These play preferences are most easily identified by the types of play we describe in “How We Play.”

Watch for the types of play your child prefers — the types of experiences that give them pleasure and confidence. Then, give them the time and space to pursue those self-initiated discoveries that last a lifetime.

Young Children Need Lots of Free Play for Healthy Development

We can’t predict what skills will be necessary when today’s youngsters enter the workforce. We do know that the desire to learn and the emotional stability (sometimes called emotional intelligence or EQ) needed to work effectively with different personalities will be fundamental to developing those skills. The surest way to help kids develop those fundamentals is to give them plenty of time for undirected free play and to foster their play nature.

Parents mean well when they direct young children toward specific outcomes like stacking blocks or saying a certain word. But research confirms that guiding children this way (instead of letting children guide themselves) stifles self-reliance, resilience, and the desire to learn. Adult direction creates “good” kids — kids who want to please authority figures (extrinsic motivations) — but free play creates self-motivated problem solvers (intrinsic motivations).

A proud toddler standing inside a low cabinet drawer after scattering the paper bags it held.

He Did It!

“My toddler went all the way over (up one side and down the other) the triangular climber today. He had never done it before, though he’d considered it many times. I’ve been watching for months as he would cautiously climb one side, attempt to go all the way to the top, then step back down the way he came. Today he climbed up once and decided to step back down. Then, a few minutes later, he came back to it and went up and over — cautiously, but confidently. Internally, I was thrilled — ‘You did it!’ I thought, ‘Great job, amazing, awesome! You finally did it!’ Outwardly, of course, I showed no reaction. He didn’t even look at me. He was doing it for himself, not for me. Then, even better, he did it again, and again. Mastery. And at no point did he look to me for validation or praise. It was his success, on his terms in his time, he owns that! I love it!”

—a mom in Liz Memel’s RIE Parent-Toddler class

A toddler carefully navigating an A-frame climber while a playmate holds the other side.

Free Play — self-initiated play time — is a sacred space. As a parent, one of your jobs is to protect that space for your kids. Not interrupt it unnecessarily and not have other adults interrupt it unnecessarily.

Liz Memel, Certified RIE® Mentor Teacher

Why Play Is Critical for Young Children

Liz Memel, parent-child mentor extraordinaire, calls free play time “sacred” because that is when children, innately curious, develop life skills.

When an object or a situation triggers the play circuits in the brain, a series of neurons fire; if a child has the free play space to pursue that interest, those neurons set off a cascade of neural connections up to the cortex and back to the cerebellum — the top and rear areas of the brain. As that situation is repeated over time those connections “wire” the brain. Many of those “wires” or neural pathways will serve the child throughout life.  

Some of the lifelong benefits of those play-created neural pathways include:

  • Making perseverance fun, which helps with focus and leads to mastery.
  • Generating optimism.
  • Building confidence.
  • Increasing empathy.
A brain scan with labels for the cortex (top front), cerebellum (bottom back), and play circuits (midbrain).
When the brain's play circuits are activated, they send signals from the midbrain to the cortex (the top of the brain) and the cerebellum (the bottom of the back of the brain). With repetition, these signals create neural pathways, "wiring" the brain.

Lots of Time in Play State Helps Your Kid Thrive

A boy diving from a picnic table into a huge pile of leaves.

There are endless benefits for children who are regularly allowed to fully engage in activities that they enjoy and instinctively choose:

  • Getting in touch with and learning about their emotions.
  • Developing emotional resilience, optimism, and the motivation to master a task.
  • Building social competencies. 
  • Learning to trust in their deepest motivations and their intuition.
  • Beginning a lifetime of learning that will help them thrive in a rapidly changing world.

Minimize Adult-Directed Time

U.S. families are increasingly crowding out free play time with “structured activities that are designed to promote academic results.” In their drive to help their children succeed, some families begin these adult-directed activities in preschool, or even earlier.

In an attempt to counter this trend, the American Academy of Pediatricians has published several clinical reports, the latest titled “The Power of Play,” encouraging pediatricians to explain to parents the critical importance of free play. 

To make sure kids have lots of time in play state, parents should not press preschool children for physical or academic accomplishments when they show no interest. That means not pushing them to walk before they’re ready, and not insisting on flash cards or piano lessons they turn away from. Parents want to put their children on an early path to achievement, but pushing children in preschool and early elementary school into activities they don’t care about will backfire.  A 2021 article by Peter Gray argues that what young children need most is play, care, and love, not school. 

Instead of trying to choose the right activities, spend time watching and understanding your children. As soon as you can — even when they are infants — try to spot what engages them and makes them gleeful. What are they doing when they laugh with joy? When they forget you are even there? Glee and engagement come from a child’s play nature, their hardwired play system. Parents who watch their kids play without interrupting foster mutual respect and regard.

For older kids, pay close attention to how they respond to the activities you suggest. For example, you might offer piano lessons to a child who has shown interest in music, but watch the lesson from afar. Is your child engaged and enjoying the experience? If not, cancel the piano lessons and offer another opportunity that fits with the gleeful, engaged play you’ve seen.

Helping your child pursue their innate interests, and validating their interests and gleeful engagement, will do more for your child’s future than all the flashcards and learning toys you could possibly buy. Whatever skills they need in the future, their early play will help children understand how to learn, grow, achieve, and enjoy life.

A toddler navigates a climbing platform while an adult kneels next to it, watching attentively.
Liz Memel, an RIE mentor-teacher, demonstrates “selective intervention,” an RIE construct supporting secure attachment: Caretakers are available to help but do not intrude when toddlers are active and focused on what they are doing. These are rich learning experiences for children.
A smiling school-aged boy practicing the piano as his teacher coaches him.
This boy clearly enjoys learning the piano.
This boy shows no interest in piano lessons.