Why Play is Vital for Learning and in Life

Article by Ms Chris Curtain, Flinders Head of Junior Primary

How much enjoyment do children get from just playing – running, hiding, chasing, climbing, imagining and role playing? And how often do children engage in this type of simple and spontaneous play, where there are no expensive toys nor electronic devices, and the only ‘props’ are made from what they find along the way? 

I was inspired to ponder these questions recently when I heard calls and shouts from a group of Year 2 students in our Flinders Junior Primary School playground. I stopped and observed them: running, chasing, crouching, catching, freezing and freeing. Watching them, I revelled in their sheer enjoyment of physical activity and the fun they were having, not to mention the negotiation and problem solving that was taking place. The group of nine students even applied the classic global ‘Scissors, Paper, Rock’ strategy to resolve a turn-taking debate!

Through their game, the children clearly illustrated the benefits of play as they applied their social and physical skills to interact positively with peers; it was a strong reminder of the power of play in the development of healthy children. 

How does play boost skills in memory, flexibility and self-control?

We have long known that children learn through play, beginning from birth with the ‘serve and return’ interactions between parent and child that feed the development of language and thought. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), in their clinical report, The Power of Play (2018), identifies play as also being beneficial in the area of executive functioning. Described as the process of ‘how’ we learn, executive functioning skills help a child to ‘switch gears’ when needed. Executive functioning involves three mental processes: working memory, mental flexibility and self-control. It is demonstrated when a person can focus attention, plan, remember instructions and manage multiple tasks successfully. (Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University)

What gets in the way of our children's play time?

Play has many benefits, with this article identifying just a few. However, the challenge for families can often be finding or making time for play. Work commitments, the many co-curricular and after-school enrichment activities, sports training, music lessons, along with homework and home responsibilities can all impact on how much time children have to use their imagination and explore their creativity through playing unstructured games and activities. The use of media is also a deterrent, with sedentary activities such as spending time on an iPad replacing active and social play for children.

How to make time and space for children (and adults!) to play

So, does your child have enough time to just play? And what would it take to create more balance and give them more opportunities to play? Whether it be climbing trees, a game of hide-and-seek or hopscotch, skipping, playing UNO or acting out a story, it’s important to create the intention for play to happen.

Parents, of course, can be a part of this play. Whether you join in your child’s play or teach your child how to play a game that you played as a child, you will find you enjoy yourself. What’s more,  playing with your child is a valuable way to stay connected and to gain a deeper understanding of how they perceive their world. 

Brenna Hicks, a mental health counsellor and author at Roots of Action states that playing with your child allows a parent to “witness the development of character and personality, problem solving and self-confidence… Your child will communicate with you through his imagination and playful experiences in ways he may be unable to do verbally.” 

Knowing how important the relationship is between a parent and a child, play is an easy and convenient approach to achieve and maintain this bond. 

Once you provide the time and space for play, your child will reap the benefits. Join in the fun and you’ll get to enjoy the benefits as well!


Brenna M, Hicks, Ph.D, “Imagination and Play are Essential to Healthy Childhoods.” 2016. Accessed from www.rootsofaction.com 23 August 2019.

American Academy of Pediatrics, “The Power of Play: A Pediatric Role in Enhancing Development in Young Children.” 2018. Accessed from www.aappublications.org/news  23 August 2019.

Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University, 'Executive Function and Self-Regulation'

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