By Samanta Rivas-Argueta, University of Toronto occupational therapy student
Edited by Lizette Alexander OT Reg. (Ont) with appreciation
It’s time to play!
As parents, it is delightful to see our children laugh and have a good time. They jump and crawl, they hide and draw! But children are not just playing! They are actively working on their neurological and biological development. In other words, children engage in creative and fun activities that ultimately help them become independent individuals.
What is considered play?
An activity that is child-directed, spontaneous, and rewarding.
This blog will inform parents of the importance of play in children’s development and how occupational therapists incorporate play as a key strategy in therapeutic sessions.
So much happens through play!
Did you know that most of the brain’s development occurs in the first years of life? Around 80% of brain development is completed by age three and 90 % by age five. Play is key to developing various regions of the brain. While kids play, they are developing several skills needed in order to thrive later in life.
- Physical development: Play promotes the development of fine and gross motor skills by strengthening the muscles of the body. Children learn body control, balance, and coordination.
- Cognitive development: Play allows for healthy brain development. While playing, children acquire and practice executive function skills, such as planning, initiating, completing, and re-evaluating Their participation through peer feedback and direct consequences both positive and negative. Playing works on memory and attention. It encourages the use of creativity and imagination, which is important when shaping lived experiences and enhancing mental health. Children also get a chance to improve their verbalization skills when playing with others.
- Emotional development: Play provides the perfect scenario for children to express emotions and communicate feelings. It helps children develop self-regulation and self-confidence. Play also helps to reduce anxiety and depression symptoms.
- Social development: Playing provides an opportunity to interact with others and learn what is expected of us in a group setting, such as sharing and communicating. They learn what behaviours are acceptable and which ones are not, and how to control aggressive behavior.
- Moral development: Play teaches about following rules and how to react when one wins or loses. It introduces values, such as empathy, respect, and teamwork.
(Encyclopedia of Children Health, n.d.; Their world, 2020; Raising Children Network, 2016)
(Photo by Tanaphong Toochinda on Unsplash)
As occupational therapists, we understand that play is vital to a child’s development. Therefore, play is prevalent in our therapy sessions as a way to motivate and engage the child while developing their skills. We use play as a dual strategy to address goals and motivate the child. For instance, playing “Earth is lava”, where a child steps or jumps on uneven surfaces, promotes balance and gross motor skills. Catching and throwing a ball is a great way to work on bilateral coordination. Also, playing with beads and Legos help strengthen the small muscles of the hand needed for handwriting.
Remember that play has many purposes.
Parents & children should play together
One essential element to play includes the role of parents and other adults (such as teachers) in early stages of play development. Parents act as facilitators to promote diversity in play. Parents are encouraged to ask questions and introduce new toys and rules during play time. But remember that play should be child-driven. Therefore, it is important for your children to use their imagination to come up with play ideas. Play is also an amazing way to spend quality time with your child. By spending time with them, you are telling them that you prioritize them, which teaches them about self-importance. Your child’s self-esteem gets a boost. From these early interactions, children develop a positive vision of the world and gain a sense of their place in it. Here are three suggestions for parents when playing with their children;
- Ask questions about the play situation; what is happening now?
- Provide opportunities for children to interact with other children
- Help children perform more complex pretend play
(Encyclopedia of Children Health, n.d.)
Types of Play
As your child grows and develops, they engage in different types of play. The following list provides a series of play categories children engage in according to their estimated age range.
Note: Engagement in play is unique for every child, and the age ranges indicated below are only approximate values, not absolute age ranges. Depending on your child’s unique timing of development and personality traits, they may engage in certain play types before or after other children.
Age range: 0 to 3 months. Definition: Initial form of play involving body movements with no clear purpose. Purpose: To develop proprioception and motor skills.
Age range: 3 to 18 months. Definition: Individual play involving exploring objects and the world around them, without noticing other children, due to limited cognitive, social, physical and communication skills. Purpose: To develop fine and gross motor skills
Fantasy play / pretend play
Age range: 18-24 months. Definition: Also known as pretend play, play that involves assuming roles and thinking beyond their world. Children often assume adult roles during pretend play. Purpose: To foster creativity and imagination, to learn new roles and experiment with language and emotions, to learn how to think in abstract methods. Examples: Playing doctor or being parents, etc.
Age range: Starts as an infant and becomes more complex as the child grows. Definition: Play that involves creating things. Purpose: To explore objects and discover patterns, while developing confidence in their own skills. Examples: building blocks, drawing, playing in sand, etc.
Age range: Toddlers years. Definition: To watch other children play but not joining. Purpose: To learn how to relate to other children and understand play language
Age range: 18 months – 2 years old. Definition: Playing next to other children without interaction. Purpose: To understand the importance of being with other children their age and learn the idea of property right “ this is mine’
Age range: Starts at 3 or 4 years old. Definition: Also known as loosely organized play, play which involves some interaction with other kids, with greater interest in what other children are doing. Purpose: To learn how to get along with other children, how to share toys, and how to use problem solving strategies.
Age range: Starts around 3 or 4 years old. Definition: Play that occurs in social settings, where children play together. Children share toys and ideas. Purpose: To learn moral reasoning, values, social rules and cooperation.
Age range: Starts at 3 or 4 years old. Definition: Play that involves running, jumping and exercising. Purpose: To strengthen muscles, develop balance and coordination and to learn the concepts of taking turns and winning or losing. Examples: Tag, hide and seek, the earth is lava, etc.
Age range: Starts around late preschool age. Definition: Play activities that allow for expression of ideas and emotions. Purpose: To express feelings and ideas. Examples: drawing, writing stories, playing an instrument, etc.
Age range: Starts in late preschool age. Definition: Play which is done within organized groups and involves group goals. There are game rules and often one leader. Purpose: To learn about teamwork, social rules and contracts, and gaining a sense of belonging. Examples: Simon says, follow the leader, team sports, etc.
(Anderson-McNamee & Bailey, 2010)
General Tips for Home
Here are some general tips you can use to encourage play in your child.
- Limit technology use for no more than two hours a day. Using too much technology hinders a child’s imagination and creativity. They are also less physically active. You can help your child by reducing screen time. Make sure your child gets a minimum of one hour of physical exercise everyday.
- Provide a wide variety of props and toys. Offer toys and equipment that reflect children’s daily experiences (baby dolls, kitchen equipment, and toy telephones).
- Include open-ended materials to encourage creativity. Build interesting structures using large cardboard boxes, like castles, tents, and spaceships. You can also provide fabrics to make a cape or a castle accessory.
- Turn books into imaginative play. After reading a book, use the theme of the book to come up with a game. For instance, you can use flashlights and dim the lights to play firefly after reading Fireflies, Fireflies, Light My Way, by Jonathan London (Viking). You can also use puppets to retell a story.
- Provide art and writing materials to encourage pretend play. Make pretend play fun by encouraging your children to make props and costumes.
- Using imagination to solve real-life problems. When social problems arise, suggest that children role-play possible ways to approach the situation.
(Miller, Church, & Poole, n.d.)
How can occupational therapists at TCTC support play
If you notice that your child is not progressing in his or her play skills and/or avoids social and cooperative play, they may benefit from additional support. Occupational therapists (OTs) are well-positioned to assess play skills and develop a treatment plan for children who may experience difficulty with play. OT services for play include, but are not limited to;
- Comprehensive assessments on play;
- Assessment of your child’s physical and developmental status, environmental factors, family and cultural factors help to determine a holistic play profile and goal areas.
- Development of treatment plans and programming;
- Collaborating with parents for goal setting and intervention planning
- Providing strategies to address areas of play difficulty (e.g., environment set-up, physical strengthening exercises, social strategies, behavioural strategies, etc.)
- Monitoring and adapting the intervention based on progress
- Coaching parents on how to teach and support play for their child at different stages of development;
- Playing misconceptions and expectations;
- Play strategies & resources (books, videos, etc.)
- Referral to specialized services as needed;
And much more…
Stay tuned! In our upcoming blog, we will be discussing play in children with ASD.
In summary, playing is an important occupation in our children’s development and journey towards independence. If you have concerns regarding your child’s playing habits or behaviours, feel free to contact us. We would be happy to speak with you about setting up an assessment and discussing how we can help!
Anderson-McNamee J. K, Bailey S. J. (2010). The importance of play in early childhood development [pdf]. Retrieved from: http://health.msuextension.org/documents/MT201003HR.pdf
Encyclopedia of Children Health. (n.d.). Play. Retrieved from http://www.healthofchildren.com/P/Play.html
Miller S. A., Church E. B., Poole C. (n.d.). Ages & Stages: Imagine & Pretend. Retrieved from:
Raising Children Network. (2016). Suitable for 0-8 years: Why play is important. Retrieved from
Theirworld. (2020). Learning through play: Early childhood development. Retrieved from: