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Play and child development: what can parents do to enhance it?

  30th March 2019

Almost all professionals in childcare and education as well as parents understand the importance of play in early childhood experiences. However, relatively little is known about how play drives development. The main answer lies in the development of self-regulation. Play, particularly well-considered and rich play opportunities, promote the development of self-regulation in children.

What is self-regulation?

Self-regulation concerns our ability to manage our own mental activities. The ability to deal with setbacks, focus and maintain attention, persevere with challenges, and brush off disappointments all fall under its remit. In the early stages of development the lack of self-regulation can be very obvious. For instance, nursery aged children are much more sensitive to exciting or disappointing situations, and their feelings on these matters will become clear quite quickly. 

The importance of self-regulation cannot be underestimated. For instance, levels of self-regulation in 3 and 4 year olds have been shown to accurately predict their academic trajectories well into school age and beyond. Therefore it is important to consider what else we might do to promote self-regulation in our children.

What can parents do to promote self-regulation through play?

Firstly, and it perhaps goes without saying but I’ll say it anyway, provide for your child a lot of time to play in a variety of different ways. Nursery is very good for this since the range of play opportunities and social interactions available there is much broader than at home.

You can also create imaginary situations that involve playing with emotions. One of my favourites is to use puppets. Sometimes they do nasty things and hurt each other (and cry); sometimes they misbehave and feel guilty; sometimes they are just so excited they can hardly contain themselves. In the puppets, young children explore a range of feelings that will be familiar to them but in a way that is fun and safe (they don’t have to feel the emotions themselves or inflict them on others to explore them).

Children also love it when you’re involved in the play so don’t be afraid to take things to their level. Sometimes I pretend that I’m an advanced alien that hasn’t long arrived on a research mission to Earth. Advanced in a cognitive way, that is, but actually very un-advanced emotionally and socially. Often the alien will get upset or scared over things that even very young children find irrational. The children then take on the role of the expert in teaching the alien how to behave and what to think in different situations. In turn the alien verbally records all of these pieces of advice down in an imaginary ‘logbook’. This can be a very powerful tool for developing self-regulation and, although it sounds silly, I would highly recommend just going for it.

Being playful and making emotions visible isn’t just a game; it’s make-believe for real. Children have an innate drive to develop increasingly mature self-regulatory abilities and we, as adults, can scaffold this development by providing the tools, opportunities and experiences through playful interactions that promote it.

Posted in categories: Children's Health, Parenting, Play and Learning