Play is the most valuable thing a small child can do. I know – because I'm an Early Years Teacher with an academic background in education. I know that children learn a huge amount of important stuff through play – and that important stuff helps them negotiate the world around them, from developing social skills and testing boundaries to ultimately becoming the person they are meant to be. So, let's take it seriously!


There are all sorts of different ways for a child to play, and each one is key to developing a skill that's crucial to their development. Understanding this helps us parents make sure we find time to play with our children in different ways, so that we're encouraging them to learn and grow a wide range of skills, as well as strengthening their bonds with us – and having lots of fun.

Here are 6 key ways to play with your child to help them learn and grow

1. Play that boosts self-expression

Dad and child pretending to be superheroes

Why it's important: Children tend to be honest about what they think and feel – as any of us who've had to deal with a screaming toddler in a supermarket knows only too well! But, in child-development terms, self-expression is much more than an outpouring of heavy emotion; it's about learning to name your inner feelings and communicate your wants and needs in a way others can understand and respond to.

How to encourage play that boosts self-expression with your child: Get ready for pretend play! Act out imaginary scenarios that reflect your child's interests, from controlling the trains at the train station to flying to far-off fairy kingdoms. Use dress up clothes, if you have them, but don't worry too much about fancy props: some cardboard boxes, household objects and a blanket or two will usually cover most role-play bases. If role play isn't your child's thing, try acting out similar scenarios with toys instead. This kind of 'small world play', which gives voices and scenarios to toys, will help your child practise expressing thoughts and feelings. There are loads of toys that are great for small world play, from dollhouses to toy kitchens to pretend emergency-services HQs, like the LEGO DUPLO Fire Station & Helicopter, which will give ample chance for acting out all sorts of rescue scenes!

2. Play that builds confidence and resilience

mum and child building a tower of blocks

Why it's important: Life is full of challenges – and, though our instincts as parents are to protect our child from anything that might go wrong, learning to deal with missteps is a key life skill. Giving your child the chance to practise coping with little failures in a safe space and to learn how to adjust and reason their way out of problems, is a brilliant way to nurture in them an inner core of confidence and resilience they can rely on as they grow.

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How to encourage play that builds confidence and resilience: Construction play is a fabulous way to nurture these skills. Whether it's building something cool from bricks or blocks, completing a puzzle or creating giant dens in the great outdoors, there's much to be gained from this trial-and-error, problem-solving play. Because your child's meeting challenges in a safe environment, they can learn that mistakes are OK and can be put right, and that not giving up and having another go often leads to success. And, as the adult playing alongside your child, you can model how to cope with initial frustrations, work out solutions and bounce back from failure.

3. Play that nurtures emotional growth

little boy hugging his toy rabbit

Why it's important: It's one thing to be able to express your own feelings; it's quite another to be able to notice, understand and take into account how others are feeling. And children who acquire this kind of emotional intelligence early often find it easier to form relationships with other children and, as they grow older, cope better with stress, anxiety and the ups and downs of school life.

How to encourage play that nurtures emotional growth: Toys designed to be cared for – dolls and toy animals – or toys you can use in caring role play – doctor's sets, vet's sets, play hospitals or farms– are key to this kind of play. You might like to practise bathing 'babies' by cleaning up plastic baby dolls in the bath, or taking 'poorly' teddy bears to the 'teddy hospital'. A favourite in our house is also taking torn books to the 'book hospital' where we sticky-tape them better… Talk with your child about how the baby/teddy is feeling and encourage them to talk sympathetically to their 'patient' as they make them better.

4. Play that promotes early literacy skills

toddler looking at a picture book with her mother

Why it's important: Children are wired to pick up language, and play with plenty of conversational interaction accelerates that process, building listening and speaking skills and sucking up little lessons in how language works and stories are constructed that will prove invaluable when your child starts school.

How to encourage play that promotes early literacy skills: Reading stories regularly with your child is a wonderful habit to get into, as part of your regular play routine. Listening to – and joining in with – songs and nursery rhymes are excellent too: play them in the car on the way to the supermarket, and you’ll soon see how quickly your child pick up songs with repeating patterns. It’s also a great idea to encourage play that strengthens the pincer grip and fine-finger motor skills a child needs to begin their own mark making (in readiness for forming letters at school). Look out for toys that have elements for little hands to thread, post and/or stack and, on days when you're ready for a bit of mess, get out some paints and brushes and make some colourful splodge paintings together.

5. Play that develops independence and self-reliance

little boy playing on his own with toy dinosaurs

Why it's important: Children spend a lot of their day being told what to do, when to do it and where they're going. So consciously finding them time to independently – where they can decide what to play with and how to play with it (within reason!) – helps them feel more capable of tackling things on their own and coming up with their own creative ideas.

How to encourage play that develops independence and self-reliance: This is all about providing plenty of opportunity for your child to self-select toys and resources for play. I recommend having a storage space in your home where your child can easily access and see their toys at their own eye level. For us, it's a simple bookcase, firmly attached to the wall, where shelves at our toddler’s height have a selection of her toys on. As she grows, she has more access to the shelves by height – and my books get relegated to the upstairs cupboards! I recommend only having a small selection of toys to choose from, so that your child isn't bombarded with choice, and regularly rotating them (we keep about a third of our toddler's toys in a wardrobe upstairs).

6. Play that builds healthy bodies

girls playing outside on grass with a bubble machine

Why it's important: We grown ups all know about the health benefits of keeping active and that's no less true for children than for adults. In fact, it's probably even more true, as physical play doesn't just keep little bodies fit, it improves gross motor skills, develops balance and movement control – and delivers a huge hit of fun. Oh, and helps tire them out nicely before bedtime…

How to encourage play that build healthy bodies: Balance bikes, ride-on toys, trikes and scooters are all brilliant but you don't need any special equipment if you live near a park with a playground or you have a back garden you can build a little obstacle course in. If you're stuck inside on a rainy day, play action games like Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes or If You're Happy and You Know It – or simply put on some loud music and bounce around the living room together.


About the author Emily Hanson

Emily is a writer, digital marketer and podcaster with expertise in play and early education. She has a PGCE in Early Primary Education and an M.Ed from the University of Cambridge. You can listen to her podcast, Digital Marketing Babes, on Apple Podcasts and Spotify. She is also mum to a busy, independent toddler.

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