Why is play important for mental health?
Through play, children can make sense of their world and practise for their future.
Play is essential for children. It helps them to:
- build confidence
- feel loved, happy and safe
- learn and develop new skills – including social skills, language and communication skills, physical skills and emotional skills
- learn empathy.
Play is vital for children’s mental health and wellbeing
It supports the development of skills, attitudes and sense of self (discussed above) that are known to be protective (for example, social competence, good coping and problem-solving skills, resilience, connectedness and the availability of support at critical times). The development of these skills, however, requires adult intervention at critical times for social learning. Most children need help to negotiate these things, and you need to be aware and available to help when needed.
This might be achieved by:
- being nearby to help a child feel safe, included and able to talk about how they feel
- providing encouragement to a child to get started or to feel comfortable enough to join in
- ensuring the play is inclusive
- watching and commenting occasionally on what’s happening – which can help children to notice how their behaviour might be affecting others and to develop empathy.
As well as providing pleasure and joy, play can also lead to children feeling negative emotions such as hurt, disappointment or frustration – both in individual play and in social play with other children. A child’s need for belonging or power can become hurtful either to themselves or to others. This can lead to children being excluded or excluding others. Your supervision and guidance are important to protecting young children’s wellbeing.
- encourage children to have more than one playmate
- help them to manage temporary disappointment or occasionally being left out, which happens to most of us at some point in our lives.
However, when there are ongoing patterns of exclusion or unfair use of power, children will need you to help them to express their feelings and get their needs met. This is crucial for a child’s developing sense of self and their mental health and wellbeing, now and into the future.
Be You Professional Learning
Learn more about the benefits of children maintaining positive and respectful relationships with peers in the Connect module.
How does play achieve this?
Play builds confidence
It provides opportunities for children to be in charge. Young children often have little or no say about what they do, when they do it and when they stop. Their lives are often organised around an adult’s schedule. Of course, most adults are making decisions in the interests of the child, but in the eyes of the child, they may feel quite powerless in many aspects of their everyday lives.
In play, children do have the opportunity to make decisions. This is important for their developing a sense of self. It builds feelings of self-efficacy, competence and confidence. Play enables children to practise new things and new roles. They can learn how to mend mistakes and feel better after things go wrong.
Play helps children feel loved, happy and safe
Being interested and supportive of a child’s play helps them to feel connected, valued and accepted. Having fun together during play time enables children to experience pleasure and joy. You can show support of your child’s play by commenting, without judgment, on any feelings the child is expressing.
Acceptance builds a positive sense of self
Children learn they are accepted as they are, they will not be punished or judged for who they are or how they feel. Sometimes play becomes boisterous and children may start to get out of control. This can be scary as well as exciting. You can help children feel safe by setting boundaries to make sure play stays safe and enjoyable.
Play helps children develop social skills
Play is important for learning the social skills (including language and communication) that develop over time and will be the foundation for future relationships.
Through play, children learn about:
- the give and take of relationships with friends (negotiating)
- how their behaviour can affect others and to develop empathy
- how to lead and follow
- repairing relationships.
Play helps children develop emotional skills
Through play, children can express their feelings, even before they have the words to say how they feel. You can help children to identify their feelings, know their feelings are understood, and help them learn to express and manage their feelings in ways that aren’t hurtful to themselves or others.
Play also fosters imagination and becomes the basis for creativity in art or music or other ways of self-expression. These ways of personal expression can help people cope with feelings all their lives.
Play can also help children learn impulse control. They learn to think about what they want to do, to plan and to be patient. If they’re building a castle and get frustrated and knock it down, they have lost their castle. In these ways, children gradually learn they need to control their impulses to achieve what they want.
Play is a way that children can work through and resolve problems
For example, a child whose family has separated may feel very anxious about what’s going to happen to them. These feelings and possibilities can be explored through play. The child can practise having two homes set-up with two houses and different dolls. The same applies to children who’ve moved house, as distance can be a difficult concept for young children to understand. There’s no need for you to take part, but being near while the child plays shows support and acceptance.
Play helps children develop physical skills
Children like games that test their physical abilities (motor skills) – running, climbing, jumping and exploring. These games bring children happiness and build their confidence.
How do children play?
As children grow, the way they play will change.
Babies (birth to around 18 months)
- Enjoy playing on their own or with you.
- Learn about their world and understand it better through play.
- Frequently look to you for guidance and social play.
- Play by themselves, with their own hands or feet or with toys that they can manipulate to make movement or sound (for example, hitting a rattle).
- Feel good when a task is not too easy or too hard.
- Can manage only short bursts of intensive play, which can be tiring.
- Need regular tummy time and floor play to help them develop movement control by strengthening head, neck and body muscles.
For babies, the best toy is you
Just looking at your face and hearing your voice is play for your baby, especially if you’re smiling. You might try:
- music, songs, gentle tapping on your baby’s tummy while you sing, bells or containers filled with different objects – these activities can help develop hearing and movement
- objects of different sizes, colours and shapes to encourage your child to reach and grasp
- sturdy furniture, balls, toys or boxes to get your child crawling, standing and walking
- play with movement (for example, holding your baby while singing, swaying or gently dancing)
- play with words, such as in simple rhymes, animal noises, books, blowing raspberries and playing peek-a-boo.
Toddlers (around 18 months to three years)
- Are starting to walk, practising their independence physically through their play (they can toddle away from adults) and verbally (saying “No”).
- Enjoy play space that offers them the opportunity to run, where they might play simple chasing and hiding games with you, and can practise their physical skills, as well as build independence.
- Start to play alongside other children.
- Often like to do the same thing over and over before moving on to new things.
- Are ready to move on when they feel really secure with what they know.
- Are starting to take an interest in other children. Mostly they don’t interact with the other child, unless there’s a toy that both want, but they play side by side.
- When toddlers play near each other, they need close adult supervision and support because they haven’t yet learned how to manage feelings or relationships. Preferably have several toys that are the same so they don’t have to share or take turns.
- They often love to play with older children, where the older child enjoys making them laugh and does things with the toddler without expecting that the toddler will share or cooperate.
A toddler might enjoy:
- big and light things like cardboard boxes, buckets or blow-up balls to encourage them to run, build, push or drag
- chalk, rope, music or containers can encourage jumping, kicking, stomping, stepping and running
- hills, tunnels or nooks that encourage physical activities like crawling and exploring
- experimenting with different sounds and rhythms (try singing, dancing and clapping along to music with your child).
Preschool children (around three to five years)
- Learn a lot about who they are, how they fit in and how to get along with others through playing with their peers.
- Engage in imaginary pretend play where a toy or a child can represent many things.
- Start to make up rules for games – who can be what and what they must do. Games often break up at this early stage because someone wants different rules, and children don’t yet have the skill to negotiate their differences.
- Start to take more of an interest in playing together, seeing other children as playmates and enjoying the interaction.
- Friendships are still often short-lived and related more to interest in a particular toy or game more than to the other child.
- They’re learning to share and take turns and to think about how the other child who wants to play might feel. This is a good time to start having some one-to-one play dates, with adult supervision, to allow children not only the pleasure of playing together but the beginnings of learning about playing socially, sharing and considering others.
- As children move into the year before school, they enjoy more-complex play. They may have long conversations about what the game will be and how the rules will be made up, who’ll be leader and who’ll be follower. These conversations are important parts of the game and learning about social roles and rules. There are lots of ups and downs in these games as children are learning about social relationships through their play.
Ideas to get your preschooler’s mind and body going:
- Old milk containers, wooden spoons, empty pot plant containers, sticks, scrunched-up paper, plastic buckets, saucepans and old clothes are great for imaginative, unstructured play.
- Simple jigsaw puzzles and matching games like animal dominoes help improve your child’s memory and concentration.
- Playdough and clay help your child develop fine motor skills.
- Favourite music or pots and pans are great for a dance concert or to make up music.
- Balls and frisbees can encourage kicking, throwing or rolling. When encouraging your child to kick or throw, try to get them to use one side of their body, then the other.
School-age children can have fun with the following objects and activities:
- Furniture, linen, washing baskets, tents and boxes are great for building.
- Home-made obstacle courses can get your child moving in different ways, directions and speeds.
- Rhymes or games like “I spy with my little eye, something that begins with…” are great for word play and help develop literacy skills.
- Simple cooking or food preparation like measuring, stirring and serving food is great for developing numeracy and everyday skills.
- Your child’s own imagination – with imagination, your child can turn themselves into a favourite superhero or story character.
- If your child is interested, you could think about getting them into some sports or team activities for school-age children. Other possibilities include after-school or holiday art and craft activities.
When should adults join in?
Adults can support children’s play in different ways, depending upon the child’s needs.
In particular, here are some ways adult family members can assist their child:
- If your child is busy playing, you might simply look on and get to know how your child plays, what they’re good at and what they like doing.
- Sometimes children will signal that they’d like you to be involved. Young babies who are just learning how to play might look at you as if they want to do something with you and be delighted when you engage with them. They communicate through their expressions and body movements when they are tired and have had enough. Toddlers and older children will often let you know they want to play with you as well as when they want to play on their own again.
- When a child is not already playing but is perhaps looking for something to do, it’s appropriate for you to invite them to play or be more directive. This may be to learn a new game, to listen to a story, to sing a song or just to have fun.
- Sometimes children’s play isn’t working well, and they need some help, such as when they get frustrated with something they’re doing and want to give up, or when they don’t have the skills to negotiate social situations.
How can adults support children’s play?
Help children feel safe and be safe
- Arrange safe places for children to play, indoors and outdoors, in parks and playgrounds.
- Provide safe boundaries and limits on their play to ensure that it’s a positive experience for all.
Provide a time and a place
- Arrange time for play.
- Don’t schedule too much in a child’s day.
- Try to make it possible for children to finish play that they’re very involved in before having to move on to do something else. If something else can’t wait, give children warning of the change. The play space may be able to be protected so the game can be continued later (for example, providing a play table rather than using the kitchen table – which needs to be cleared for meals– as a play space enables play experiences to be stopped and started by the child.
- Provide children with some playthings (such as dolls, building blocks, playdough and paints).
- Allow children to find their own playthings both inside and outside. For example, fabrics, boxes, leaves, gumnuts, puddles, pots and pans to put things in and pour with, low walls to walk along, cushions to crawl over, pegs to put into small holes and sort into colours, everyday clothes to dress up in, and garden spades to practise being grown up.
- Seeing what a child enjoys doing will give you more ideas of the things they may like to play with. They may ask for particular toys or books that relate to their current interests. Finding children something they really love can help them to know their likes and dislikes are valued and respected, which helps to build their sense of self.
- The best playthings encourage creative play and can be used for many things as the child grows. These include bats and balls, paper to draw on and various drawing materials (pencils, textas, crayons and paints), blocks, dress-ups, dolls, puppets and toy animals, sandpits, water and mud, things to push, pull and ride on (for instance, cars and trucks, wagons and tricycles), containers of all shapes and sizes, playdough and clay, musical instruments, and songs, stories and books.
Follow a child’s lead
- Children need opportunities to play and work out feelings in their own way.
- Resist the temptation to criticise, direct or turn play into a lesson.
- Show support by being near, noticing and accepting what the child is playing rather than directing or taking the lead away from the child (for example, saying “I see you’re singing your baby to sleep in the cradle” is supportive, but saying “Now the baby is asleep – what do you think the mother will do next?” is directing and taking the lead away from the child).
Provide opportunities for children to play with others
Children benefit from playing on their own, with other children of varying ages and with adults. However, children can easily become overwhelmed and tired if there are too many children or not enough things to go around. Keep playdates manageable for the child – not too long and not too many people.
Children need the support of adults to learn how to manage their feelings and social situations. This is essential social learning. Most children need help to negotiate these things, and you need to be aware and available to help when needed.
Active Healthy Kids Australia. (2016). Physical Literacy: Do Our Kids Have All the Tools? The 2016 Active Healthy Kids Australia Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Young People. Adelaide: Active Healthy Kids Australia. Retrieved from http://www.activehealthykidsaustralia.com.au/report-cards/.
Ahn, S., & Fedewa, A. L. (2011). A meta-analysis of the relationship between children’s physical activity and mental health. Journal of Pediatric Psychology, 36(4), 385-397.
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW). (2018). Physical activity across the life stages. Canberra: AIHW. Retrieved from https://www.aihw.gov.au/getmedia/c249ef97-e219-44df-a8bd-f5e50d04064c/aihw-phe-225.pdf.aspx?inline=true.
Carson, V., Hunter, S., Kuzik, N., Gray, C., Poitras, V., Chaput, J., & Tremblay, M. (2016). Systematic review of sedentary behaviour and health indicators in school-aged children and youth: An update. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, 41(6 Suppl 3), S240-65.
Tremblay, M. S., LeBlanc, A. G., Kho, M. E., Saunders, T. J., Larouche, R., Colley, R. C., ... & Gorber, S. C. (2011). Systematic review of sedentary behaviour and health indicators in school-aged children and youth. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 8(1), 98.
Play is more than fun for babies, toddlers and children. They need to play to develop a host of skills essential to successfully navigating adulthood.