Play is vital for children’s mental health and wellbeing

Originally posted in 2015, this post was updated in August 2020. 

Play helps children to develop healthy bodies, minds, social and emotional capacities, thinking and learning abilities. Play is essential for children.

Play can be pretending, learning a new skill, dressing up, being active, or being quiet.

Children should make the rules for play, except when it comes to rules for safety.

Children’s social and emotional skills develop through play

Play is a natural part of childhood and helps children to learn many things.

Through play, children:

  • can feel in charge and learn to manage their feelings
  • build skills and confidence in themselves
  • learn about relationships – leading, following, being patient, caring for others, and learning to understand the perspectives of others through role play
  • make sense of the world
  • learn how to mend mistakes and to feel better.

“Play reduces children’s stress, supports imagination and creativity and is something children can own.”

And above all, play is fun! Children play what they enjoy, and stop when they’ve had enough.

How to support children’s play

Adults can support children to make the most of their play time by:

  • arranging safe places for play
  • not scheduling too much in a child’s day – allowing time for play
  • providing some playthings (such as building blocks, play dough), and allowing children to find their own (such as boxes, leaves)
  • reading and storytelling with children
  • joining in when invited
  • following the child’s lead and resisting the temptation to direct, criticise or turn play into a lesson.

Sometimes children need adults to help them feel safe and included, or to get started or join a game.

Play and relationships

Play is an important time for teaching children about relationships.

It can help children to notice how their behaviour is affecting others and develop a sense of empathy for others.

“Children need the support of adults to learn how to manage their feelings and social situations.”

Children play changes as they grow

As children grow and develop, they play in different ways.

Babies (birth to around 18 months):

  • start to understand their world through play – babies are natural researchers and will benefit from time to explore their environment and objects within it
  • often play by themselves.

Toddlers (around 18 months to three years):

  • often start practicing their independence through play
  • enjoy space that enables them to run
  • are learning about friendships but are not yet sharing or playing collaboratively
  • often like to do the same thing over and over before moving on.

Preschool children (around three to five years):

  • learn about who they are, how they fit in, and how to get along with others through playing with peers
  • play may be symbolic or involve pretending
  • start to make up rules for games.

Read more about how play helps children feel good about themselves.

Play with children benefits their development and wellbeing

Play time with adults can be very special for children.

“Setting aside even a short time for playing with children every day builds close relationships and helps to build children’s self-esteem.”

Children have different ways of signalling they would like adult involvement. Babies might simply look at you and be delighted when you play with them. Older children will often let you know they want to play.

Sometimes play can become boisterous. It is up to the adult to set boundaries to make sure play remains safe and enjoyable.

Play is not all fun and games

Play can also lead children to feel hurt, disappointed or frustrated, whether they’re playing on their own or with others.

Families can help by:

  • encouraging children to have more than one playmate
  • helping children to manage temporary disappointment
  • intervening when there are ongoing patterns of exclusion or unfair use of power.

Sometimes children need adults to help them express their feelings and meet their needs. This is crucial for a child’s developing sense of self and their mental health and wellbeing, now and into the future.

Be You provides educators with knowledge, resources and strategies for helping children and young people achieve their best possible mental health. This article was first published on KidsMatter (now known as Be You) Early Childhood’s blog in 2015.

Be You

Early Childhood Australia’s Be You team is a highly qualified and experienced multidisciplinary team of professionals committed to promoting and supporting positive mental health and wellbeing in the early years. Together, with Be You partners, Beyond Blue and headspace, the ECA team support educators in implementing the Be You Professional Learning and continuous improvement processes across early learning services and schools.

One thought on “Play is vital for children’s mental health and wellbeing”

    Robyn says:

    This is a fantastic article explaining the many benefits of play.

    As a Developmental Therapist and Exercise Physiologist I observe too many children lacking imagination as well as fine and gross motor skills as a result of a technological and sedentary lifestyle.

    I love planning days full of play as well as including structured activities that challenge our motor skills and problem solving.

    Thanks for writing a very thorough and informative blog article.

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