The Vital Role of Play for Children

By Renée Layman, LMHC, President and CEO

Play is not just a fun pastime for children; it's a fundamental part of childhood that shapes development across multiple domains. From fostering social skills to enhancing cognitive abilities, play serves as a cornerstone in nurturing healthy growth and well-being in children.

The American Academy of Pediatrics stresses the importance of play in strengthening the parent-child bond and for children living in poverty. Information from Harvard Center on the Developing Child  underscores the significance of play in supporting responsive relationships, strengthening core life skills, and reducing sources of stress.

Play Supports the Development of Healthy Relationships

Play plays an important role in supporting healthy, responsive relationships and promoting Positive Childhood Experiences (PCEs) which research shows can mitigate the impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and trauma. Play provides a natural avenue for children to form connections with caregivers, peers, and their environment.

Through play, children learn to communicate, collaborate, and negotiate with others, laying the foundation for healthy relationships later in life. As children engage in self-directed, imaginative play they develop empathy and self-regulation skills—essential for building strong and supportive bonds with others.

Strengthening Core Life Skills

Play is also instrumental in strengthening the core life skills related to success. Whether it's building towers with blocks, playing dress up and role-playing, or engaging in physical activities, play offers opportunities for children to develop essential cognitive, motor, and socio-emotional skills.

Research shows that play-based learning experiences are linked to improved problem-solving abilities, creativity, and self-confidence. By engaging in play, children explore, experiment, and learn from their experiences, honing skills that are essential for navigating life's challenges.

Play Reduces Stress

The past few years have caused significant stress and anxiety for children and their families. In the face of a children's mental health crisis, we need to find effective ways to reduce stress. Play serves as a natural stress reliever, offering children a safe space to express themselves, release tension, and process difficult emotions. Parents can support children by 'directing' some of the play through the toys offered. For example, if your child gets anxious about going to the doctor, a doctor’s kit and toys can help them express and work through feelings.

Unstructured play promotes stress reduction by activating the brain's reward system and lowering cortisol levels, the stress hormone. By engaging in play, children can escape from daily pressures, recharge their minds, and develop resilience in the face of adversity.

 At Center for Child Counseling, play is at the foundation of our work with children. Our staff have ongoing training in Play Therapy and we are credentialed through the Association for Play Therapy, which sets the national standards for training and practice.

For children who may not be able verbally express abuse or trauma, toys become their words. Through play, children give us a glimpse into their world, work through problems, develop healthy coping skills, and heal after traumatic experiences.

Play Resources for Parents and Caregivers

As parents, caregivers, and educators, it's important to recognize the importance of play in children's lives and prioritize opportunities for unstructured, imaginative play in their daily routines. By embracing play as a vehicle for learning and growth, we can empower children to reach their full potential.

We have developed an array of resources to support parents and adult caregivers of children. Through Ways to Play, we offer practical information and strategies to promote play that nurtures positive relationships, resilience, and well-being.


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