700 Children's® – A Blog by Pediatric Experts

The Power of Play in Childhood

Apr 04, 2023
children playing

Playtime in childhood is an age-old distraction, one that gives parents an opportunity to complete grown-up tasks. However, while you are paying bills or cooking or cleaning, your children are discovering their abilities and learning how to plan, organize, get along with others and regulate their emotions.

Unfortunately, the amount of time children get to play has been declining for decades. As parents, we can change that trend by encouraging lots of play from infancy through the teenage years.

Structured Play

Structured play involves specific rules and objectives. Examples of indoor structured play include board games, cards, and video games. Following the instructions of a brick construction set, putting on a play or show, and games of hide and seek are great activities on cold, rainy days. When the weather cooperates, structured activities can be enjoyed outside. Examples include games of tag and kickball, scavenger hunts and obstacle courses. These activities strengthen reading and language, as children read rules and explain directions. Mathematics is used when keeping score, and elements of design are called into play when building with brick sets.

Unstructured Play

Unstructured play is more about the journey than the destination. Examples of indoor unstructured play include free play with toys (cars, dolls and train sets), freestyle building with blocks and logs, dance parties, and playing house or restaurant. Unstructured play can also be enjoyed outside with time spent on the playground, supervised swimming, building sandcastles on the beach, and hiking through the woods. These activities spark the imagination and encourage children to explore and engage their surroundings.

Group Play

Group play is also important and can involve both structured and unstructured activities. Children learn cooperation, conflict resolution, and emotional self-regulation. Positively interacting with peers is an important life skill that is first learned during group play. Children learn cooperation and social and emotional intelligence. They learn respect for rules and the concept of fairness while following them. During competitive activities, your child’s ability to build relationships is more important than victory!

Physical Benefits of Play

When play involves movement, such as tag, kickball, obstacle courses and dance parties, improvements in cardiovascular health, strength and flexibility are possible, especially when these activities occur with frequency. Regularly engaging in physical activities during play is great training for eventual participation in organized sports and developing good habits that will carry into adulthood.

Social and Emotional Benefits of Play

Research has shown that increasing playtime in childhood reduces anxiety, depression, and violence. Increased play is associated with higher IQ as adults, higher educational success, and better general knowledge. Playing with others also impacts emotional intelligence with improvements in self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management.

Parents and Siblings Benefit Too!

When parents play with their children, it allows moms and dads to relive the joys of their childhood. Parents report playing as being recharging and refreshing. Parents who play with their children become more attentive to their child’s nonverbal behavior and develop a better understanding of a child’s sense of humor, creativity, and personality. Engaging in play improves communication skills between parents and their kids, and it promotes bonding. Playing also improves relationships among siblings, with those who play often reporting a strong connection into adulthood, regardless of the age gap.

At the end of the day, playtime is an important part of childhood development and wellness. Parents play a direct role in encouraging play and providing opportunities for structured, unstructured, and group play. In doing so, we help our children develop important skills needed for success in adulthood.

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Featured Expert

Nationwide Children's Hospital Medical Professional
Mike Patrick, MD
Emergency Medicine; Host of PediaCast

Dr. Mike Patrick is an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the Ohio State University College of Medicine and Medical Director of Interactive Media for Nationwide Children's Hospital. Since 2006, he has hosted the award-winning PediaCast, a pediatric podcast for parents. Dr. Mike also produces a national podcast for healthcare providers—PediaCast CME, which explores general pediatric and faculty development topics and offers free AMA PRA Category 1 Credit™ to listeners.

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Pediatric News You Can Use From America’s Largest Pediatric Hospital and Research Center

700 Children’s® features the most current pediatric health care information and research from our pediatric experts – physicians and specialists who have seen it all. Many of them are parents and bring a special understanding to what our patients and families experience. If you have a child – or care for a child – 700 Children’s was created especially for you.