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Young children and play

3-minute read

Play is more than just fun for children, it’s how they learn to use their bodies, communicate with people, and explore and master the world. Playing is vital for the healthy development of babies and children.

Playing is essential for developing their language, their thinking, their physical and social skills, and their emotional wellbeing. Through play children learn to negotiate, solve problems and become healthy teenagers and adults.

Benefits of play

As a parent, it is important to support your child's development by playing with them and encouraging them to play in a leisurely way by themselves or with other kids.

Play helps to ‘wire up’ children’s brains, making them better able to socialise with people, control their emotions and perform well at school.

Play also helps children:

  • develop physical skills
  • find out how things work
  • learn about the physical properties of things like water, sand or playdough
  • discover the environment and learn to care about it
  • make friends and learn to care about other people
  • develop social skills such working in groups and negotiating with others
  • learn language skills

Through play, children build their confidence, conquer their fears and practise grown-up roles.

Different types of play

For newborns, parents are the best playmates. You can smile, make faces, wave your hands, talk, sing or move about and your baby will be fascinated and learn from you. As babies grow and develop into lively toddlers, agile children and then independent teens, the type of play changes.

Read more about playing with your baby.

Free play

For younger kids, one of the best types of play is free, unstructured play where they use their bodies, creativity and imagination and interact with others. Free play allows children to move and discover at their own pace.

Free play includes:

  • imaginative games played alone or with others, for example, dressing-up and make-believe games
  • exploratory games either outdoors or indoors, for example, catching tadpoles in a stream or unpacking and banging pans in the kitchen
  • social play with other children, parents or caregivers, including musical games, singing and creative activities

Structured play

Structured play is organised and often led by an adult. It includes:

  • story time at playschool or a library
  • dance, drama or art classes
  • board or card games
  • exercises such as swimming lessons or sports

Limit TV and screen time

Watching TV, using a computer or playing a computer game is not play.

The Australian Department of Health recommends that children under 2 should not watch television or use electronic devices. View Australia's Physical Activity and Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines for recommended time limits for other age groups.

Play safety

Ensure your home is safe for babies or toddlers to play in by putting child-proof locks on cupboards and covers over electric power points. Keep potentially dangerous objects, medicines and poisonous substances out of reach or locked away. Don’t let young children play with small objects they may choke on.

When young children play outdoors, ensure that a parent or a trusted caregiver is nearby and never let kids play in water or a pool on their own.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: January 2021

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Play with babies and toddlers

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This information is for your general information and use only and is not intended to be used as medical advice and should not be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any medical condition, nor should it be used for therapeutic purposes.

The information is not a substitute for independent professional advice and should not be used as an alternative to professional health care. If you have a particular medical problem, please consult a healthcare professional.

Except as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968, this publication or any part of it may not be reproduced, altered, adapted, stored and/or distributed in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of Healthdirect Australia.