Why is play important for children?
Play is one of the main ways children and toddlers learn about themselves and other people.
Play is important for brain development. It gives your child the opportunity to use their imagination and practice new skills such as:
The skills your baby learns in their early years continue to be built on throughout their childhood.
When your child has fun during play and tries different activities, it helps form connections in their brain.
Play also helps your child to:
- feel happy, secure and safe
- learn how their body works and what they can do
- learn about the natural world and the environment
- to exercise and keep within a healthy weight range
Play also allows your child to:
- test risky behaviours in a safe and supervised way
- build confidence and relate with other children of the same age
How do children play?
Most young children tend to 'parallel play'. This is when they play at the same time, rather than with each other.
As your child moves into the preschool years, they will start to play more cooperative with you and other children.
When playing with your child, practice sharing and taking turns. This can help your child will learn that other people have feelings too.
What types of play are good for my child?
It's important to provide different types of play for your child.
The best type of play is unstructured, or child led. Try to balance unstructured play with organising your child's play (structured).
Aim to balance your child's inside and outside play with structured and unstructured activities.
There will be times when you need to get creative about where to go and what they can do, especially if you're stuck inside.
Unstructured play is when your child decides what they want to play and when. Young children may need your help getting started with play activities. But, they are best left to their own decision making once they're organised.
Some examples of unstructured play include:
- providing painting, drawing and 'craft' activities and leaving the child to manage themselves
- a dress up corner with a variety of tops, scarves, hats and pants
- outdoor play equipment which is child safe and accessible
- a toy box with age-appropriate toys
- cubbies made from large boxes, or a sheet draped over a table
Structured play is when an adult directs a child's play.
Some examples of structured play include:
- swimming classes, playgroup, library story time
- reading and looking at books together
- dance, music or drama classes
- board games played with others
- puzzles and sorting games
Some examples of outside play are:
- physical play on swings and slides, in sandpits, and with toys like balls
- messy play with buckets, mud, water and sand
Try not to let the weather control your child's play. Dress your child in a raincoat and puddle boots during wet weather.
Playing in wet weather can be special for your child and help them get creative. This can change a quiet day inside to a pretty special (wet) day and day outside.
Some examples of indoor play are:
- a dress up area where they can practice their imaginative and creative play
- drawing and scribbling with crayons, coloured pencils and paints
- colourful, safe toys of different shapes, which are entertaining and fun
Drawing and scribbling can help your child develop their fine motor skills which are important when learning to write.
It is good to read with your toddler every day. You can:
- set up a reading corner for your child with soft cushions and a range of books
- join a library
- give books as presents
- let your child see you reading
What are the best ways to play with my child?
When playing with your child, just be yourself and aim to have fun. Spending time with them and having fun will help them to feel loved.
You can look for simple games which don't require a lot of money or planning. You can also use things around the house that are safe for your child to play with.
When your child has had enough of a particular activity and needs a break, let them. Play should be fun, not a chore.
Try not to expect too much of your child. They are still learning how to share and be thoughtful.
When should I play with my child?
As a parent, you'll have lots of demands on your time, but it's worth looking for time each day just for fun with your child.
Play can happen at specific times, such as during playgroup, or just throughout the day and evening.
Some children seem to struggle with playing on their own and want a parent to 'always' play with them. Setting up an activity and getting them started can help. Give them encouraging messages that they're doing well on their own.
Knowing when to offer help and when to step back is a skill you will develop over time.
How can make sure that my child is safe when they play?
Young children cannot tell when something is unsafe. Your toddler will rely on you to always check their environment for safety.
It's impossible to remove every potential hazard from our homes. However, restricting your child's access to dangers is a priority. Be sure to:
- supervise your child while they play
- arrange areas of your home where your child can play safely
- remove any hazards where they play
- use childproof gates and latches to restrict their access to unsafe areas of your home and to prevent falls
- lock up poisons, chemicals and medicines
- use plug-in covers on electrical switches
- make sure your pool is fenced and that your child can't get near water which can pose a risk of drowning
You can try using a home safety checklist.
Should my child have screen time?
Screen time includes:
- watching television
- using a smartphone, tablet or a computer
Children aged 2 to 5 years should have less than 2 hours of screen time per day. This ensures that your child get the right balance of physical activity and other activities that promote learning and social skills.
You can find out more by reading healthdirect's kids and technology page.
Resources and Support
You can call the healthdirect helpline on 1800 022 222 (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria). A registered nurse is available to speak with 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Speak to a maternal child health nurse
Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.
Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.
Last reviewed: November 2023