The importance of play for toddlers


We live in a time where we just don’t have enough time. No where is this more pressing than when it comes to our children. If you can forget for a moment the constant pressure you feel to spend as much time with them as possible while still working a full time job and maintaining a perfect house, then you certainly won’t forget all the things they are now expected to have mastered before they step foot into a school. It feels like there is less time for play and not near enough time for learn, learn LEARN.

Which is ridiculous, because the way they will learn the most important lessons, the most valuable skills, is through the time they spend playing.

Children learn through play. This is now accepted as fact by practitioners, psychologists, and parents the world over. There are a multitude of ways they do this in many varied forms of play, each with their own developmental benefits. I’d like to take a look at a few of them here, so next time you see your child engaged in a form of fun, you can know without a doubt that he/she is in fact learning valuable life skills.

Pretend Play

This is my absolute favourite! I’ll never forget when Olivia began to show signs of pretending with her toys, I would listen at her door in utter fascination as she thought up different scenarios and laughed and squealed in delight. I’ve overheard her mimicking me, and replaying events she herself had experienced, but my favourite is when she comes up with something completely new and I find myself wondering where on earth she found an imagination when it isn’t something I thought to teach her. That’s ok though, because it’s completely natural for our little ones to find it all their own and thank goodness as it is a vital contributor to a child’s development!

By stretching the rules of reality, children develop important life skills such as problem solving, self-regulation, empathy, and my all-time favourite – creativity.

Engaging in creativity is wonderful exercise for the brain, and pretend play trains children to build their creative muscles, grow their imagination, and to think for themselves. The imagination is a powerful tool that is indispensable throughout our lives. If you stop to think about it, you use your imagination daily as you navigate adulthood – to picture things in your mind and solve problems, to invent new things or new ways of doing things. To make any plans requires imagining them, and no one could enjoy watching TV or reading a book without having an imagination. How do we put ourselves in another’s shoes and try to understand a different person’s perspective or feelings? Through our imagination.

If you think of a group of children playing together and how they must work together to do so harmoniously, the benefits of pretend play are really clear. First, they have to take part in good communication and negotiation to settle on their game and the rules thereof. They then must agree on characters and roles and use problem solving skills and empathy should disagreements arise here. Once everyone is happy, the child will then try fit into their new role as doctor or teacher or baddie etc and find out where their character fits within the greater group. Without even thinking about it, the child is suddenly imagining what this new character would be feeling, putting themselves into new shoes, and developing their empathy. They will learn delayed gratification, and the benefits of putting another’s feelings before their own for the good of the group.

Another wonderful benefit of pretend play is the safe space it allows for young children to express negative as well as positive emotions. They can see the effect their different emotions have on the people and objects around them without a fear of rejection or reprisal, and thereby learn how to control their behaviour in a way that is socially acceptable. Playing through difficulties they may have experienced in their own life, such as the passing of a loved one or being reprimanded by a parent will help them to organize their own feelings on the matter, whether they are good, happy feelings, or difficult, sad/angry feelings.

Through pretend play your child can work through activities they have never experienced before, they will develop their vocabulary and knowledge of the world around them. Playing new scenarios means learning the words that go with them, or the behaviours attached to them. For example, if you are going on holiday and your child will be flying in an airplane for the first time, pretending would be a wonderful way for them to ease any anxiety they have about the experience and at the same time expand their mind. Playing airport will teach them new words such as ‘runway’ or ‘air hostess’, and what behaviour is expected of them in such a situation, for example to sit quietly in the plane so as not to disturb the other passengers. They may learn that they have a hidden interest in airplanes and from there a great new hobby could arise!

Gross motor skills are engaged with rambunctious outdoor games such as being in a circus or pretending to be dinosaurs. Fine motor skills are honed with small dolls clothes pulled onto tiny doll limbs. Math skills applied to count coins when playing shop-shop, vocabulary expanded to get ideas across to new friends. The benefits are truly endless.

Studies have shown that parents who take the time to explain new ideas and discoveries, both in nature and on a social level,  and who read and tell stories, have children more likely to take part in pretend play. Remember to encourage your child daily to engage in imaginative play, and help them keep the game going if it seems to be fizzling out too quickly (engaging in long-term activities is a learned skill which can also be developed in pretend play). Use the resources you have available – if you are trying to explain a new concept to your child, why not use Youtube to do so? I have, on countless occasions, pulled out the Ipad to show Olivia a video of a new animal I have just told her about. Have you ever tried explaining a seal to someone who has never seen one?

Rough & Tumble Play

Keep an eye on it and make sure it does not get too physical, but rough-and-tumble play should absolutely be allowed! It is a valuable resource for children to learn self-regulation. It teaches them when such behaviour is appropriate and when it is not. Children often get ‘wild’ as a means to provide sensory input to their bodies, as they learn to use their muscles and joints to the full, and activities which provide resistance and impact are the best for this.

Roughhousing burns off massive amounts of energy, but that is not the greatest benefit by far. Think of 2 children engaging in a bit of rough play. They each need to adjust their movements to suit their companion – to play with each other and not annihilate each other – by altering their speed, resistance, and power behind their pushes and pulls. This requires the important social skill of paying attention to the cues given by another person and listening when someone talks.

Self-confidence is built through rough-and-tumble play too! You will see your child push themselves to the limits of how fast they can run or how low they can crouch, and how proud they are of themselves for every tiny improvement (behaviour we can all learn from, but that’s for another blog!)

My favourite lesson learnt through rough-and-tumble play though, has got to be the importance of consent. It’s pretty self-explanatory – if someone doesn’t want to engage, they can’t be forced. And with such a physically intimate form of play, this is a hard and fast rule. Whether its boys playing together, girls playing together, a mix of the two, or even parents and their children, boundaries should always be respected. This is a lesson which will teach our sons respect for women, our daughters respect for their own bodies, and families respect for each other. I love it.

Unstructured Play

Something it feels like kids have no time for anymore. Unstructured play - not sports at school, or video games on the Ipad, or mom lying out a set of toys that beep or dance or talk when you push a button. Unstructured play is just time for your kid to be a kid. To play in whatever way they want to play in with no adult guidance, for no reason other than fun. It encourages creativity (you know how much I love that!), develops social skills when playing with other children (more of that negotiation, problem solving and cooperation), and it is usually physically rewarding.

Children are incredible. If you sit and watch them, I’m telling you your mind will be blown. Their little brains are developing in ways we can’t even imagine, they are working daily with big emotions and new experiences. Give them time to play and have fun and just be kids, and I promise you the rewards will be out of this world.

All my love,


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