The effects of play on development

Childhood development experts know that playtime is essential to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional development in children at any age, and your toddler is no exception.

Cognitive skills

Toddlers use play to practice problem solving, spatial reasoning, critical thinking, and early pre-math skills, even when it’s not so obvious what they’re doing. These undercover lessons happen when toddlers complete simple puzzles, sort and stack objects, and play make believe. Providing your toddler with simple, open-ended toys for building, sorting, stacking, and yes, destroying, encourages this kind of creative play. No need for anything fancy. As Albert Einstein once said, “play is the highest form of research,” and blocks, play-dough, sand, water, stacking cups, cardboard boxes are all perfect instruments in your little scientist’s lab.

Physical development

Between one and two years of age, children generally reach big physical milestones like walking up and down stairs, standing on tiptoe, climbing onto (and off of) furniture or playground equipment, kicking and throwing balls, and even running! Practice makes perfect, so giving your toddler plenty of safe spaces and opportunities to let loose will help them reach these milestones just by having a good time. Playground adventures, trips to the park, living room dance parties, and other chances to run, kick, throw, and climb will also help strengthen their muscles and improve their coordination. More than that, associating physical activity with fun will help Baby stay active for years to come.

Social and emotional development

Up until now, Baby has mostly engaged in solitary play, but by age 2, they may begin to exhibit the first steps of playing with others (including playing alongside other kids, or joining in “chasing” style games). Spending more time around other children will lead to countless informal lessons on sharing, taking turns and managing feelings. When faced with interactions with other kids which may make them happy, sad, mad or afraid, you can help Baby learn about emotions by labeling what they are feeling for them as you reflect back on the playdate with them. You can also point out when characters in books or tv shows have emotions, and play at pretending emotions and how to deal with them during make-believe games.

There’s a reason Maria Montessori is so famously quoted as saying “Play is the work of the child.” For kids, play is serious business. Next time you see Baby whispering bedtime stories to a toy banana, or trying to see how much play-dough they can stack on the dog, know that there’s more to it than meets the eye. They‘s also practicing language skills, developing abstract thinking, rehearsing empathy (for the banana, not the dog), working on fine motor control, conducting a physics experiment, and completing a field study on canine behavior. All on his own… and all in the name of play!

  • “6 Types of Play: How We Learn To Work Together.” (n.d) Psyblog. Retrieved from:
  • Bongiorno, Laurel. (n.d). “10 Things Every Parent Should Know About Play”. Retrieved from
  • CDC Staff. “Important Milestones: Your Child By Two Years.” Retrieved from
  • Child Development Institute. “Play Is the Work of The Child.” (2015). Retrieved from:
  • Ginsburg, K. 2007. The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds. PEDIATRICS Vol. 119 No. 1. Retrieved from

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