Research on the Value of Play


“For children, toys are their words and play is their language” (Landreth, 2002). Play Sitters are educated on the connection between play and child development. They know how to use toys and play to communicate with children so that children receive the maximum benefit from in-home child care.

“You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” ― Plato

Play and Development

“Combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought.” ― Albert Einstein

Playing is important to children and their emotional, social, mental and physical development. Play has five essential characteristics. It is “intrinsically motivated, freely chosen, pleasurable, non-literal, and actively engaged in by the participants” (Hughes, 1995, p. 23). The human development theory provides the framework for the benefits of play. According to the human development theory, at each stage of life, people should develop in certain age-specific ways, and certain conditions must be present for this development to take place (Johnson and Yanca, 2007).

Contemporary theories of play stress the emotional, intellectual and social benefits. For example, the psychoanalytic theory states that the reason for play is to reduce anxiety by giving a child a sense of control over the world (Hughes, 1995). According to this theory, the greatest benefit of play is emotional and social.

Rather than emphasizing its emotional value, the cognitive-developmental theory of play states that the reason for play is “to facilitate general cognitive development” (Hughes, 1992, p. 15). This theory states that play provides a comfortable and relaxed atmosphere in which children can learn to solve a variety of problems and facilitate their intellectual and social growth. Toys are crucial tools for helping children develop and improve their motor, perceptual, and sensory skills (Lederman, 1986). Variables correlating with cognitive development during infancy and the preschool years are: the availability of play materials, and the quality of adult involvement (Gottfried, 1986). The first three years of life are the most crucial to brain development.

“The freest child is the child who is most interested in what he is doing, and at whose hand are the materials for his work or play.” -Caroline Pratt

Play and Attachment

Children appear to be more attached to caregivers who are secure and confident in their skills. Caregivers who make themselves available, are sensitive to the child’s needs, are affectionate, show interest in their child, and enjoy spending time with their children are more likely to have securely attached children. Play has been found to facilitate attachment between caregivers and children (Hughes, 1995). The interaction between the child and the caregiver through play helps the child bond to the caregiver because of the emotional connection that is felt.  It is important to note that toys do not have much interest for children who are deprived of nourishing and trustworthy social relationships. However, children who experience the love and comfort and encouragement from positive relationships are able to enlarge their social, communicative and cognitive capabilities using toys (Chase, 1992).

Therapeutic Value of Play

The use of play is indispensable to the psychotherapy of children for many reasons. Play naturally allows children to communicate their feelings. It gives children opportunities to release tensions and pent-up emotions that are difficult to express otherwise, such as anger and fear. It allows them to take out their frustrations on play materials, without fear of censure from adults. Play also allows adults to enter the world of children and to show children that they are recognized and accepted. When an adult plays with a child, there is a temporary equalization of power and the child is less likely to feel threatened by the adult. Play encourages children to relax and reduces their anxiety and defensiveness because it is enjoyable. Play encourages self-discovery and provides the possibility for children to learn alternative methods for dealing with their problems (Hughes, 1995).

“For a child, it is in the simplicity of play that the complexity of life is sorted like puzzle pieces joined together to make sense of the world.” -L.R. Knost


Chase, R.A. (1992). Toys and infant development: Biological, psychological and social factors. Children’s Environments, 9, 1-19. Retrieved September 9, 2008, from, F.P (1995). Children, play, & development. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn &Bacon

Gottfried, A.W., & Brown, C.C. (1986). Play interactions: The contribution of play materials and parental involvement to children’s development. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.

Hughes, F.P (1995). Children, play, & development. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn &Bacon

Johnson, L. & Yanca, S. (2007). Social work practice: A generalist approach. (9th Ed.) Boston, MA: Pearson.

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

Lederman, E. (1986). Developmental toys and equipment: A practical guide to selection and utilization. Springfield, IL: Thomas Books.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s