The Importance of Play


Research shows that play has an essential role in children’s learning.

Dr. Jeffrey Trawick-Smith discusses the importance of play and advises early childhood professionals to look at several elements of children’s play, including engagement in make-believe play, social interaction during play, and play complexity.

Teachers who enhance children’s play can help promote children’s development in a variety of domains including problem solving, communication and engagement with others.

Using a lot of social interaction and using language is indicative of good progression, alongside seeing more complex play as children start to grow.

During this video how a think about how you enhance through play.


Dr. Jeffrey Trawick-Smith (00:14):

Play is an activity that young children do every day, and we all know that it’s important, but did you know that research shows that play is actually central to young children’s learning? What can you do to help children get the most learning from their play?

Dr. Jeffrey Trawick-Smith (00:35):

When you look at play, when you watch children play, it’s pretty obvious that it’s a really enjoyable fun activity for children. Probably it’s what makes childhood so enjoyable. What is not as obvious maybe is how important play is for children’s development. Research has found that play helps children to think creatively. They learn all kinds of different problem-solving strategies when they play. Play has been linked to language development and certainly, it leads to positive social skills.

Dr. Jeffrey Trawick-Smith (01:09):

One of the more important things that research shows is that playing is related to reading and learning to write. One way that play helps children in literacy areas is that it’s very symbolic. For example, when they are using a toy telephone to represent a real phone, they’re using a symbol. That’s not unlike looking at a word and seeing that it represents something that’s not present or something in real life.

Dr. Jeffrey Trawick-Smith (01:37):

One element of play that I think is important to observe in children is pretend and make-believe. One thing you want to watch for as you’re watching children play is do they engage in make-believe? Do they take on the roles of pretend characters or other people in their lives? Do they use objects in make-believe ways? Do they invent imaginative play situations to play out with their peers?

Dr. Jeffrey Trawick-Smith (02:04):

There are a variety of ways that adults can enhance this kind of pretend. One really enjoyable way to do this is simply to play along with children to actually take a make-believe role, play parallel or with children to make play suggestions, to ask questions, to encourage this kind of role playing.

Speaker 2 (02:25):

Do you know how much it’s going to cost to get my car fixed, Jaden?

Dr. Jeffrey Trawick-Smith (02:29):

A second element that I think is important for adults to look at when they’re observing children’s play is social interaction and, related to that, verbalization, using language as you’re interacting with your peers.

Speaker 4 (02:43):

I need another small one.

Speaker 5 (02:47):

There is no smaller one.

Dr. Jeffrey Trawick-Smith (02:50):

You want to see a lot of language in this kind of play setting.

Speaker 5 (02:54):

Maybe we can do this.

Speaker 4 (02:59):


Speaker 5 (02:59):

This is a long one.

Dr. Jeffrey Trawick-Smith (03:02):

Take a role, try to facilitate more language by asking question, try to facilitate some peer interaction.

Dr. Jeffrey Trawick-Smith (03:11):

A third element of play that I think is important for adults to look for is what’s sometimes been called play complexity. As children get a little bit older into the preschool years what you like to see is a greater variety of enactments as they’re carrying out a role. If children aren’t playing that kind of complex play, if they’re still quite simple and repetitive in their make-believe, or in other kinds of play that they engage in, it might be time for an adult to move in and facilitate

Speaker 7 (03:42):

Someone is playing house. Are you playing house?

Dr. Jeffrey Trawick-Smith (03:47):

Again from question asking maybe suggesting some new enactments to perform will help the play to become more complex.

Speaker 7 (03:56):

What’s this baby’s name?

Dr. Jeffrey Trawick-Smith (03:57):

One thing I’d like to be sure to caution about is that playing with children is great fun. And so all of these strategies to facilitate play will be very enjoyable for the adult as well as the child. The thing we have to be careful about though is not to stay too long to overstay our welcome, but to be sure that after a period of enriching children’s play, we get out of the play’s center to allow them to play on their own. You need to be very respectful of children’s play activities.

Dr. Jeffrey Trawick-Smith (04:27):

When you enhance children’s play in these ways, when you facilitate their pretend play, the complexity of their playing, social interaction, not only you’re enhancing their play, but this leads directly to overall advancement children’s development. Play is a wonderful tool for parents and teachers to use, a wonderful vehicle for promoting larger areas of development.

Speaker 8 (04:54):


Speaker 9 (04:58):


Speaker 7 (04:59):




Websites – Department for Education. – The Training and Development Agency for Schools – Child Development Institute – NHS – Teachernet – Department for Education. – The Training and Development Agency for Schools


Books and Policy Papers


  • Supporting Teaching and Learning in Schools (Primary) (Burnham)  ISBN 9780435032043 (Heinemann 2010)
  • Understanding Schools as Organisations (Handy & Aitken) ISBN 9780140224900 (Penguin Books Ltd 1986)
  • Supporting Teaching and Learning in Schools (Primary) (Burnham)  ISBN 9780435032043 (Heinemann 2010)
  • A Teaching Assistant’s Guide to Child Development (Bentham) ISBN 9780415311083 (Routledge, 2003)
  • Successful School Transition (Dawrent) ISBN 9781855034358 (LDA, 2008)
  • Understanding Children and Young People: Development from 5-18 Years (Lindon) ISBN 9780340939109 (Hodder, 2010)