The Value of Play

Written by Julie Bisnath, BSW, RSW

“We don’t have time to play right now.”

“Why are you playing with that?”

“There are more important things to do than play.”

“You can’t just play all day.”

“It’s not time to play.”

“Stop playing and eat your dinner/pick up your toys/get ready for bed”.

“We’re too busy to play right now.”

Sound familiar? Sometimes as parents, we forget exactly how important play is to children—how essential it is to their growing brains and bodies.  We forget that play is how children learn and develop.  As Fred Rogers explains “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning.  But for children, play is serious learning.  Play is really the work of childhood.”1 Who better than Mr. Rogers to sum it up so accurately?

If you’re in the field of early childhood education, play-based learning is familiar jargon and you’re probably pretty comfortable with the concept.  If you’re not (and don’t worry most parents aren’t), I’d like to provide a little overview to help answer a question I’ve heard a lot—“What is my child doing all day besides playing?”.

Here is one of my favourite definitions: “Play-based learning provides opportunities for children to develop a sense of the world around them through inquiry, exploration, interaction, and problem solving.”2  Through play, children are naturally learning what they need to know.   Play-based learning is embedded in Ontario’s early learning pedagogy How Does Learning Happen? and is used to further children’s learning in all areas of our provincial kindergarten program.3

Play-based learning consists of two types of play:

Free play is voluntary, unstructured, intrinsically motivated, and initiated by the child.  It is the spontaneous, joyous play that arises from a child’s natural wonder and curiosity.  Examples include play with open-ended toys and loose parts (i.e. blocks, dress up), outdoor play in nature, process art experiences, sensory play, etc.

When child care providers build in “free play” as a significant part of the daily routine they are giving children the gift of time and space to learn through play.  The children have the freedom to explore, develop, and control the play as it unfolds naturally.

Guided play has more specific learning goals and can be led by the child or the adult.  The adult helps to extend the learning goals naturally associated with the play by asking open-ended questions, prompting problem-solving, and engaging with the child in their play.

Learning through play is successful because it is based largely on the child’s interests and appeals to their fun-loving nature.  It allows children to learn and practice skills in all areas of development:

  • Cognitive—Play builds executive function skills such as planning, problem solving, task initiation, and flexible thinking.
  • Emotional—Play supports emotional competency and regulation. It builds resilience.
  • Social—Play provides opportunities to work together, to share, negotiate, and compromise. Children begin to learn about social cues and conflict resolution.
  • Communication—Play encourages the development of expressive and receptive language, enhances vocabulary, and teaches self-advocacy and assertiveness skills.
  • Physical—Play promotes the development of strength, muscle control, coordination, and reflexes. Children also learn about movement, body awareness, and risk assessment.


When children are actively engaged in play they are developing the skills they will need for later academic and life success. In her book PLAY, author Lisa Murphy describes it like this: “Play is not separate from learning.  Play is the cement holding our foundation together and it is this foundation that will, in turn, support the house of higher learning.  It facilitates social and emotional skill development as well as the linking of concepts to experiences in order to assist children as they begin making sense of their world.  It is this linking towards which we are ultimately working.”4

Through play, children are able to express their ideas, explore who they are, test out emerging theories, engage their creativity, and practice essential skills.   In a time when children are trying to understand the pandemic and its implications relative to their lives—processing what they see and hear in their community, at child care, and at home—it is important to take a minute to acknowledge and appreciate the importance of play.


“Play gives children a chance to practice what they are learning…They have to play with what they know to be true in order to find out more, and then they can use what they learn in new forms of play.”5  ~Mr. Rogers


When you ask your child “What did you do today?” and they answer “Play!” be assured that they have been working hard and that your home child care provider is facilitating and supporting serious learning and growth.


  1. Fred Rogers Center:
  2. What is Play-Based Learning?
  3. A Parent’s Guide to Play-Based Learning in Full Day Kindergarten:
  4. Lisa Murphy, PLAY—The Foundation that Supports the House of Higher Learning, (Ooey Gooey, Inc.) 2009
  5. Fred Rogers Center: