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Kids and physical play

4-minute read

Play is important for children’s development and learning. Knowing how you can support your child's play, including how to help them identify and manage risks, goes a long way to helping them grow and thrive.

Why children play

Play is how children learn – it's through play that they imagine, discover, create, test ideas and form social groups.

Play helps your child:

Play gives children a supportive environment in which to ask questions, solve problems and understand more about their world. It is crucial for their brain development.

Types of play

Unstructured, free play is the type of play that 'just happens'. It isn't planned, and it is driven by whatever your child finds interesting at the time. Common examples include making cubby houses, playing dress-up or exploring new spaces.

Structured play is organised and happens at particular times. Common examples include dance or swimming classes, library reading groups, or sport.

The way your child plays will change as they get older. They will play for longer, become more creative and might play alongside or with others.

At different ages, children enjoy different forms of play:

  • Babies like talking, singing, smiling and spending time together – the best toy for your baby is you.
  • Toddlers enjoy boxes, balls, music and anything that stimulates their curiosity and encourages movement and exploring.
  • Pre-schoolers like puzzles, drawing, playdough, dress-ups or anything that encourages thinking and creativity, while things like music and balls are great for getting your child moving.
  • School-age kids enjoy rhymes, riddles, cooking, home-made obstacle courses, and objects for building and creating their own games.

Rough-and-tumble play

Rough-and-tumble play activities like wrestling, rolling and climbing are fun and help your child develop lots of skills. Rough play lets them test their strength, move their bodies in new ways, and learn about personal boundaries and taking turns.

Sometimes it can be hard to know if rough-and-tumble play has become more serious. Usually, in rough play, children will still smile, laugh or show excitement. But if you notice fear, anger or crying, it might have gone too far. It's a good idea to set some rules about what is and isn’t OK during rough play, to give children some guidance on how to play roughly.

Rough-and-tumble play ideas

Some 'rough' play ideas for babies and toddlers include exciting movements, like tummy time, bouncing your child on your knee or lifting them into the air.

Dancing, chasing and spinning around are all great ways to play ‘rough’ with your toddler.

Primary school children might like more physical activities, like wrestling or play fighting.

Risks and play

Risks are an essential part of play – they help children understand their limits and test their boundaries. There is a difference between a hazard and a risk. A hazard is something your child doesn't see, whereas a risk is something they are aware of and can work out how to negotiate.

For example, a hole in the ground that your child doesn’t see is a hazard – they might trip over it. A hole in the ground that they see is a risk – they are aware of the hole and can adapt their play because of it.

When risk is removed from play, children don't get an opportunity to learn how to do things for themselves, such as knowing what their bodies are capable of and how to stop or say no.

You can help your child negotiate risk, by praising their efforts and talking them through any physical challenges they face. This will help them test themselves and build their skills.

Outdoor play

Playing outdoors among trees, dirt, plants and other elements of nature invites risk-taking, exploring and discovery. It enables children to connect with nature and to appreciate their natural environment.

Choosing toys

Toys are useful tools for helping your child play and understand the world around them. They don't have to be expensive, but they must be appropriate for your child's age.

Screen time

Australia’s National Screen Time guidelines suggest these screen time limits per day:

  • no screen time for children under 2 years old other than video chatting
  • no more than 1 hour for children between 2 and 5 years old
  • no more than 2 hours for 5 to 17-year-olds (recreational screen time)

You can find more information on your child's development here.

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

Last reviewed: May 2021

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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.

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