Why Is Play Important in Early Childhood Development?

Before you tell your child that you're too busy to play with her, or cancel a play date with her friends because you're not in the mood to supervise the little ones, consider that the American Academy of Pediatrics notes that play affects a child's physical, emotional and cognitive development 1. Just taking 20 minutes or so each day to play with your child, as well as making an effort to make and keep play dates with other children, can benefit your little one in numerous ways.

Social Skills

Playing with other children provides many opportunities for learning crucial social skills like sharing, taking turns, problem solving and conversing with others. Information provided by Montana State University Extension identifies several types of play in which children engage from birth to older childhood. As babies grow, they progress from playing primarily by themselves in solitary play, to watching other children play in onlooker play, to engaging with other kids some time around age 2 or 3 in social play. Social play is crucial for kids to learn how to interact with others as they grow into school-aged children and, later, well-functioning adults.

Cognitive Development

According to Montana State University Extension, 75 percent of brain development occurs after birth. Play stimulates brain development, creating necessary neural connections. Babies learn about shapes and size by trying to fit a round block into a square peg. They learn about texture by touching various objects. Toddlers learn cause-and-effect by stacking a block tower and knocking it over. Preschoolers develop creativity by pretending to be a princess in a castle -- and older children learn problem solving by organizing a game of hide-n-seek with friends. Exposure to books, toys and games expands a child's vocabulary.

Imaginary Play

Dr. Alison Gopnik, who is a professor of psychology at University of California, Berkeley and has researched child development for more than 20 years notes that children are naturally curious and far more capable than adults realize at learning important concepts through exploring and playing. Dr. Gopnik explains that when children engage in pretend play, create imaginary friends, or explore alternative worlds, they are learning what people are like, what they do and how they think. She explains that this pretend play leads to a greater understanding of themselves and other people -- and that this understanding pays off later in life when children enter school and in other social situations.

Motor Skills and More

Play gives children the opportunity to practice fine motor skills like gripping a pencil or cutting with scissors, as well as gross motor skills like walking, jumping and running. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests the importance of physical play in preventing the growing epidemic of childhood obesity 1. Physical play in group settings also encourages children to cooperate with each other through negotiation and problem-solving, allowing them to develop self-confidence while forming important relationships with their peers.