The Importance of Play

By Jeni Hooper,
Child Psychologist and Parent Coach

Children need at least an hour a day of unstructured, independent play where they make it up as they go along. This is the conclusion of recent studies looking at the importance of play.

The importance of play for healthy development was taken for granted in the past but never researched because it was assumed that every child did get plenty of time to play.
Now with organized after school clubs, weekend classes and often long journeys to school things have changed. Parents are also anxious about the practical issues of keeping children happy, safe and productively occupied. Many parents now prefer structured, and supervised programmes, believing that they must be not only safer, but better for their children than independent play.

However there is now an increasing body of biological research that shows how free play is central to healthy brain development and wellbeing. A 2011 issue of Scientific American Mind carried the article “The Serious Need for Play: How it improves your creativity, emotional health and cuts stress. The article identifies 5 key benefits:

• Play provides high levels of practice for social, emotional, physical and problem solving skills which are used in play. These become stronger and more fluent more quickly than would result from adult led learning.

• Children use more sophisticated vocabulary when playing with other children as they have to be clearer and more precise to get their ideas across and influence the game.
• Free play reduces anxiety by providing activity which distracts and engages the child from everyday concerns. Where play is imaginary, rather than just physical, children can work through their concerns via the game. Children often use to pretend to be someone stronger and more resilient which helps them feel more in control.

• Play develops creativity, because children will explore all the possibilities that a toy or situation provides without the sense of “right and wrong” or trying to meet adult expectations.

• Free play is not only relaxing, it leads to release of brain developing chemicals needed to establish new neural pathways in the higher centres of the brain.

There is no doubt that children benefit from carefully structured and organized programmes but there is also much to be gained from having space to explore and create your own pleasures. Unstructured play is a natural part of a child’s development that needs the space and freedom to unfold.

Many parents understandably have come to believe that if play is important to development then it will be even more beneficial if it is guided by adults. But is this really true? Try this checklist when deciding on the value of a structured activity. Will it teach your child to:

• explore a variety of ways of creating their own fun,

• how to manage their time and have the freedom to discover and develop their imagination,

• learn how to persuade and influence other children to join in games

• have a broad repertoire of social skills to make relationships work

• manage conflict and compromise when opinions differ,

• focus and maintain concentration without adult reminders,

• change tack when something doesn't work,

• to problem solve and test a variety of solutions,

• take risks safely by evaluating what they are capable of doing

• discover their skills and abilities,

• find out how to manage time and avoid boredom

Play and safety

Many parents are concerned that it is now less safe for their child to be unsupervised than when they were young. Whether this is true or not is hotly debated but parents need to feel confident and assured that they are doing the best that they can. If you have safety concerns you could:

• Agree a time and space in your house when your child is free to choose what they do

• Set clear rules and boundaries about what is safe play indoors

• Invite a friend around for a play date with your child

• Take your child to the park and let them choose what you do so you take the role of play assistant

Suitable choices for your child’s age

Your child’s ability to play independently will increase with age and practice. Under 8’s will almost certainly need to be in a safe space when playing independently as they are highly unlikely to “risk assess” a tricky situation particularly if they are fully absorbed in their play. However that does not mean that adults have to be involved in their play any more than is necessary.

Having said that, babies and toddlers need adult company and gain more fun from their toys if an adult is involved. From 18 month’s old approximately, children start to copy other people and enjoy being helped to join in. By 3 years old children are beginning to amuse themselves for a short time, and although they like other children, they cannot yet play together and share. By the age of 5 children usually have vivid imaginations and can create their own games. Friendships may still be fragile but shared play is now preferred to play alone.

Older children benefit from some time each day spent doing their own thing and chilling out. A child who is developing interests of their own is also learning to use their powers of concentration and persistence to get a result.

The ability to concentrate and problem solve is not only a useful skill during play but it is also especially important at school where the teacher cannot be at every child’s elbow to keep them on track. It may be surprising to know that learning to play teaches a child to be successful in school, but there is strong evidence that children who can play independently without adult direction are the more successful learners.

Now that really is a serious result for the importance of free play: learning to make your own fun can help you to learn how to work!

For more information on play and learning visit

Author's Bio: 

Jeni Hooper is a Child and Educational Psychologist specialising in helping children to find their best selves and to flourish. Her book What Children need to be Happy, Confident and Successful: Step by Step Positive Psychology to Help Children Flourish is published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers and can be viewed here
Jeni can be contacted at or visit my website