Building Play Skills for Healthy Children & Families

Taken from The American Occupational Therapy Association

How can families develop play skills to promote health and well-being?

Early childhood

Play teaches infants, toddlers, and preschoolers about their bodies and about the effects of their actions on the world around them. Play promotes growth and development through movement and exploration. Family members are the child’s first playmates.

  • As children learn to walk and run, they enjoy chasing and hide-’n-seek, climbing, and pull toys.
  • Toddlers develop hand skills by dropping shape toys into slots and scribbling with crayons. They also enjoy books and toys that make sounds. They begin to imitate by using, for example, a toy telephone or hammer.
  • Imitation and pretend play increase during the preschool years, through use of dress-up, puppets, and toy cars and trains. Preschoolers enjoy construction games such as building toys and puzzles, which further develop their coordination skills. They enjoy playground time and riding toys. They play with materials with different textures, such as finger paints and sand. Games during the preschool years teach turn-taking and getting along with others. These activities also help children develop language skills.

Elementary School

The elementary school years are an important time for learning to play by rules and participating in cooperative activities such as sports teams. Motor skills are being fine tuned, and there is an increased interest in developing hobbies. Play often serves as a way of developing friendships and expressing one’s unique personality. Finding a balance between formal play and informal play (e.g., participating on the playground) allows for play time to be both active and creative.

Try these ideas to build skills and expression:

  • Participate in board games and sports activities with your child; this helps your child to learn to follow rules.
  • Have various craft materials readily available to spark creativity and interest.
  • Offer options for extracurricular activities that include both physical and creative exploration.
  • Provide play opportunities that include both structured and less structured choices.
  • Encourage your school to support recess as a necessary part of every child’s day. This is a good time for physical movement that can promote learning and positive behavior.
  • Like recess, active play before homework time can prepare your child for learning.
  • Don’t forget to keep play activities fun! If you lose that element, it is no longer play.

Middle School

The early teen years mark a time of exploring social relationships. This is teens’ form of play.

  • Participate in leisure activities with your teen, such as table tennis or biking, to help strengthen family ties and offer opportunities to build communication.
  • Ask questions about your child’s preferences in movies or music to indicate your interest and to spark conversation.
  • Consider your own habits and routines of leisure and whether they include physical activities, and model a balanced lifestyle of work and play. You are a role model for your teen.