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Why play is helping your child to develop and thrive

29 June 2022

We all want our children to be happy and settled as they move from home or pre-school settings into school and, eventually, the adult world that follows.  Here, we speak to the experts employed in our campaign partner Fisher-Price™ Play Lab, as well as experts from our own services, to explain how important play is to children’s development in the early years, as well as how caregivers can help make the most of this precious time.   

If you take five minutes to watch the video we’ve produced in partnership with Fisher-PricePlay Lab, you’ll find some telling words from their Manager of Early Childhood Development Research Lisa Lohiser.

Lisa informs us that “In the first five years of life children develop more physically and cognitively than they do for the rest of their lives – it’s this period that lays the foundation for learning and development that carries forward”. 

If you need to take a minute to let that sink in we don’t blame you, as it’s a monumental idea that so much of what follows in our lives is built upon those early years.

It’s an amazing thought, but also one that can feel loaded with pressure – it is, after all, Lisa’s job to think about child development all day… what are the rest of us supposed to do with far less experience?

Luckily for us, we’ve got a couple of things going for us all.

The first is that our children are hard-wired to be fascinated by the world around them and eager to develop physically, cognitively, socially and emotionally.

The second is that we’ve got the best tool in the world to help them do so – and that tool is play! 

Let’s explore how play can help with the key pillars of a child’s early development.  

Physical development

Outdoor play such as engaging with nature, mud or sand is fantastic for children’s physical development as they get much-needed exercise.

All that running, jumping and handling squishy mud and sand is also great for developing gross motor skills, leading to balance and coordination, while some of the more nuanced work children might do wielding scissors, tape or knives for junk modelling or imaginative food play help to develop the fine motor skills that eventually set the foundation for writing when our children enter school.   

Cognitive development 

“In the first five years of life children develop more physically and cognitively than they do for the rest of their lives – it’s this period that lays the foundation for learning and development that carries forward”.

While we’re talking about school… how do you feel about teaching a pre-schooler maths?  

No, us neither… but that’s exactly what you’re doing when you sit down with them at a water play table or a sandpit and help them measure out their play materials in smaller increments – learning about weights and measures in the process.  

They can also learn about the properties of different materials – learning that, for instance, paper might float until it gets too wet and begins to sink while plastic will float all day.

Food play can also be a brilliant way to introduce basic numeracy as we weigh out ingredients.

And guess what… If you read that same recipe out loud with an older child you’re also helping them to develop literacy skills.

In fact, it’s worth noting that we shouldn’t be too narrow in our definition of literacy, as discussion around items, objects and stories helps children to understand sentence construction and develop their vocabulary.

As our Early Years Manager Karen notes “Commenting on what our children are doing and maybe offering some new vocabulary as they do so is a way for children to very quickly learn new words in their proper context”.


But vocabulary isn’t the only reason to roll your sleeves up and get stuck in alongside your child. Play also lets us explore the difficult world of social interaction in a safe space with fewer consequences.

As Lisa so eloquently puts it: “There are lots of different ways to reach milestones in early childhood but play is really the only way that’s universal and it’s a time that children can really be free. “There’s no right or wrong way to play and there’s no right or wrong answers, so they can have all these experiences in a worry-free way and experience the world”.

So our children can explore cause and effect as they destroy a tower of blocks, and if that tower belonged to another child (or an over-enthusiastic parent) they can learn how their actions affect others and how to navigate tricky disagreements.

It’s particularly important that children learn to share, for example, as their social interactions become more complex.

Cognitive play and social play can also come together beautifully as children, peers and adults come together for make-believe play sessions and tell stories together, developing imaginative and creative skills.  


We saved the best for last here, as play is absolutely vital to children’s emotional development.

On a basic level the sensory elements of water and mud play or modelling dough gives children the opportunity to soothe themselves and relax. 

However, play also allows children to experience a full range of emotions – whether that’s the excitement of a new activity, the frustration of failure, the sadness of another child failing to share, the contentment of creating something themselves… we could go on, but we’d rather let our Early Year’s manager Karen take the floor here.

She adds: “Play is simply the way children learn. It gives them time to try out strategies and emotions, revisit them and then keep trying them out in different ways.”

“Play is simply the way children learn. It gives them time to try out strategies and emotions, revisit them and then keep trying them out in different ways.”

“Through doing that our children explore lots of different concepts: They learn what works, they find what doesn’t work and they get the time to tweak it until it’s working for them”.

And this is an important point to focus on. In addition to Lisa’s expert advice that there’s no wrong way to play, it can offer consolation to any parent or carer who’s still feeling that pressure to ‘get play right’.

If we initially feel a little stiff in the role of playmate we too can learn what works and tweak our approach to ensure that our children’s playtimes are rich in learning and full of wonder… We just need to learn to let go and play a little too.

And as we’ve helped explain here, the benefits for your child can be so wide-ranging. We leave the last words to Fisher-PricePlay Lab’s Dr Corrine Eggleston:

We appreciate that finding time to play can be hard and sometimes we can lack the know-how and confidence to do so as grown-ups. Over the summer we will be sharing more practical guidance from our child development experts on how to create engaging play spaces and fun,  low-cost activities that the whole family can enjoy (including the adults, we promise!) We will cover the small, simple actions you can take to help you and your child get the most from it.  

Follow us on Instagram and Facebook to enjoy and benefit from our summer of play. If you’d like to receive guidance and play activities from our child development experts direct to your inbox, please sign up to our newsletter.  It can be difficult to play effectively with worries on your mind, so if you are struggling with any aspect of family life why not contact our FamilyLine service for free emotional support and guidance.  



Family Action and Fisher-Price™ Play Lab