Importance of Play in Early Childhood

Dr. Carla LeHouillier
Wishing Star Associate

As adults and parents, it’s been a long time since we have just sat down and played. In our busy day-to-day lives, we forget that play is such an essential component of young children’s worlds, an activity which contributes immensely to their development and growth. Adults often express their feelings, conflicts, wishes, needs and desires through verbal language and “talking it through”. For children, play is their natural language and toys are their words. Through this medium they can express how they are feeling, describe their needs, wishes and desires, and communicate any conflicts they may be experiencing or struggling with. There are many different types of play that children may engage in, including mimicking or replaying things they have seen or heard on TV, in videogames or in their everyday lives, processing burdens or confusing life situations, and expressing delight in situations.

Imaginative play also helps children develop their cognitive skills, especially a type of ability termed executive functioning, those skills required for resisting impulses, self-regulation and planning and goal-directed behavior. For example, when a child is playing “school” with a group of friends, he or she has to remember who is playing the teacher and who is playing the student while participating and engaging in the school role play, a task which uses working memory (being able to hold some things in mind while working on other activities), a component of executive functioning. Imaginative play also requires young children to be flexible in their thinking and shift their perspective, other important components of executive functioning skills.  For example, the child who is playing teacher when engaging in the “school” role play, may have to switch roles be the father when playing “house”. Or, that child may have to be flexible in their desire to play a specific role when engaging in imaginative play with other children, as another child might also have a desire to play that particular role.


Berk, L. E., Mann, T. D., & Ogan, A. T. (2006). Make-believe play: Wellspring for the development of self regulation. In D. G. Singer, R. Golinkoff, & K. Hirsh-Pasek (Eds.), Play = learning: How play motivates and enhances children’s cognitive and social-emotional growth (pp. 74-100). New York: Oxford University Press.

Landreth, G. L. (2002). Play therapy: The art of the relationship (2nd ed). New York: Brunner-Routledge.

This blog posting is not a form of psychological counselling, advice, therapy, or assessment and should not be used as such by any individual. This blog posting is provided only as an article intended to encourage thought and discourse. For specific psychology related services, please contact an appropriate healthcare provider.