The Importance of Play in Learning

by | Jul 30, 2020 | 0 comments

The Importance of Play in Learning

Play is the primary occupation of children – that is, play is what fills up most of a child’s time, particularly during early development. Play can be defined as any physical or mental leisure activity which is undertaken with the purpose of enjoyment or amusement. While play is typically something which is done to ‘have fun’, playing also has a key role in a child’s early physical, social, emotional, sensory, and cognitive development. 

Why is play important?

Play skills make up the building blocks for foundational skills, including physical, social, emotional, sensory and cognitive wellbeing and development. Play is a child’s way of interacting with and understanding themselves and the world around them. It is therefore important that children are encouraged to explore their world through play throughout the early years, including in school. 

Through play, children are able to develop the skills necessary for developing self-care and academic skills. Just some of the skills involved in play include: 

  • Gross motor coordination
  • Fine motor coordination
  • Tool use
  • Visual perception
  • Spatial Awareness
  • Creative thinking and problem solving
  • Social communication
  • Awareness of social rules
  • Motivation and attention

Each time a child plays, they are strengthening the connections – or synapses – in their brain which helps them to process information and to retain and improve these skills. Children are born with all the brain cells necessary for cognitive function, but they require external stimulation through play and social interaction in order to create connections between these brain cells. Without frequent opportunities to play, a child may struggle to develop the foundational skills necessary for learning. 

What are the stages of social play? 

As children develop an interest in the world around them, including an awareness of other children within their environment, they start to develop skills in social play. This develops in stages, starting at birth. The typical stages of play are as follows: 

1. Unoccupied play – random movements and interactions with items without purpose.
2. Solitary play – purposeful play with self or objects, no awareness of peers.

3. Onlooker play – increased awareness of others, may watch others playing but not engage.
4. Parallel play – play side by side with peers in similar games but without active interaction.
5. Associative play – sharing similar goals during play alongside one another, some interaction.
6. Social play – sharing toys and ideas and working together towards a shared goal. 

How can I tell if my child is experiencing difficulties in relation to play skills?  

Typically, children start to interact with others in the early stages of social play (i.e. onlooker or associative play) around 2-3 years old, with well developed social play skills occurring between 5-6 years old. There are many reasons a child may experience delays in their play skills, including motor difficulties, social communication difficulties, and sensory processing difficulties. 

Some typical signs that a child is experiencing difficulties with their play skill development include: 

  • Appearing not to understand how to interact with toys, games, or peers.
  • Little or no engagement or awareness of peers. 
  • Difficulties initiating play independently (needs guidance on how to play). 
  • Switching quickly between different things so it interferes with tasks.  
  • Difficulty understanding and negotiating problems or obstacles. 
  • Difficulty understanding and following play rules such as sharing or turn taking. 
  • Acting out the same type of play repetitively or ritually without change. 

Top tips for developing play skills

There are many approaches to supporting a child who struggles with play, as there are many aspects of play with which a child may be struggling. We have put together some of our top tips for promoting improved play skills in children: 

  • Put aside a protected time to spend 1:1 with your child each day for play. 
  • Initiate interactions between peers by helping to meet a shared goal. 
  • Provide open-ended play materials to promote creative thinking. 
  • Provide a range of play materials and toys which serve different functions. 
  • Model scripts for social play (e.g. “my turn, then your turn”). 
  • Set up stations for different types of play. 
  • Use sensory play to develop early play skills. 

We hope that this blog has helped to understand the important role of play in child development and learning. If you would like help to explore play, please email 

Thank you for reading. 


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About the Author

Joanne Harries

Joanne Harries

Clinic Manager

Joanne is a friendly, positive, and outgoing Highly Specialist Paediatric Occupational Therapist & Sensory Integration Practitioner, with a real passion and drive for supporting children, young people and their families with everyday activities and challenges. Joanne Works in a professional manner at all times and it is her aim to make a difference to the lives of the individuals and families she supports.

Joanne has previously supported and help to set up Occupational Therapy services to; a children’s therapy company, secure setting for adults with complex needs, and specialist schools for Autism. Joanne’s experience of various diagnoses and working within teams of professionals also extends to complex behavioural difficulties.

Joanne has extensive experience of assessment and report writing, with a particular interest in assisting individuals, families, and Solicitors with SEN Tribunals. Joanne is available to provide assessment, consultancy and training to families, schools, Solicitors and parent support groups, remotely, in the South Wales clinic, across the UK and Internationally.

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