The Importance of Play from Birth to Five Years


Research shows that children learn best in an environment where they can play, explore and discover freely. Play is described in the Oxford dictionary as to “engage in an activity of enjoyment and reaction rather than a serious or practical purpose”.

Early Childhood News refers to Piaget, a Swiss psychologist famous for his work in child development, whose theory of play is based on cognitive development i.e. language, needing environmental stimuli. He described assimilation as new experiences and knowledge and accommodation of those into a child’s thoughts and behaviours.

Play is vital in the development of language, creativity, cognitive, emotional and physical development. Children learn to explore their world as they develop at their own pace, through play.

Types of Play

  1. Unoccupied play – begins before birth when the foetus reacts to his/her mother’s voice, music or makes random movements.
  2. Onlooker play – observing other children and not joining in.
  3. Solitary play – playing independently without including others.
  4. Parallel play – playing near others, they may use the same toys without interactions.
  5. Associative play – playing together in small groups with no rules and
  6. Co-operative play – playing together with defined rules to complete a project and sharing toys/materials.

Suitable Toys

For birth- 6months

Things they can hold, suck, shake, reach for e.g. teething toys, soft dolls, discovery balls, rattles, play mats & board books.

7-12 months

As they become more mobile by rolling, sitting, bouncing, crawling & standing e.g. stacking toys, musical toys, building bricks, first puzzles, picture books & push/pull toys.

1 year

They are now on the move, playing alongside others, talking e.g. dressing up, plastic animals, wooden blocks, songs/music, books, crayons, phones, interactive toys.

2 years

This is a time of increased language, jumping, climbing, running & fine motor skills e.g. puzzles, books, kitchen sets, play food, sand/water play, painting, cutting, sticking & football.

3-5 years

They may be attending pre-school or nursery, asking questions, exploring, experimenting e.g. problem-solving toys, pretend play, books with more words, building blocks, using pencils, paintbrushes, finger paints, scissors & musical instruments.

Safety Tips

  • Children should always be supervised by an adult during play.
  • Ensure toys are age appropriate & stored away safely.
  • Check toys regularly for wear & tear, damage, sharp parts, splinters, small parts/pieces i.e. buttons or batteries which can caused choking or suffocation.
  • Toys should be lead-free, non-toxic, easy to clean & shatterproof.

Modern Technology

We live in a world where we cannot escape modern technology and it has a part to play in providing positive learning opportunities for children. Smartphones and tablets allow children to interact and learn via apps and games.

An Ofcom UK report published in 2017 concluded that 96% of 3-4 year olds watch TV on a TV set for around 15 hours/week, 21% have their own tablet & 40% play games for nearly 6 hours/week.

Simple guidelines include setting time limits i.e. 15 – 30 minutes for toddlers, to allow regular breaks, adult supervision/interactions and avoiding devices at least 1 hour before bedtime.

There was no data collected for younger children, however 1St Place Children and Parents Centre conclude children 2 years and younger “learn better from using their senses to explore the world around them and interact with other children and adults”.

Indoor and outdoor play is essential and most importantly, adult participation during play is crucial and beneficial to both child and adult; as it can improve communication, problem-solving and bonding.

This article is sponsored by Independent health visitors. Check their website for more information. Read more related posts here.