Skip to main content
Shopping Cart
HomeDevelopment Through Play

Supporting My Child's Development Through Play

Ask the Experts by Lauren Vanderlist

Q: How can I support my child's development through play?

A: Play and development go hand in hand, from the very beginning children are learning through play. First by connecting with parents and other caregivers and later when they are with peers. As an occupational therapist I typically assess fine and visual motor skills, strength, feeding, dressing, sensory processing and coordination. However, I am also concerned and interested in the progression of a child’s play skills because of the impact it can have on all other areas of growth. As the late, great Mr. Rogers said, “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play IS serious learning. Play really is the work of childhood.”

Play begins at birth. Unoccupied Play occurs when an infant is simply looking, listening and moving within their environment. This transitions as their motor skills and interests develop into Solitary Play where they are content to play by themselves, often manipulating objects in their hands and bringing toys to their mouths. Later they begin to observe others during Onlooker Play, in preparation for more mature Parallel Play. As communication skills develop, both gestural and verbal, they begin to participate in more Associative Play with others which then progresses to Cooperative Play.

In addition, there are several different kinds of play, each offering opportunities for growth and development. These include:

Constructive Play using different tools and materials (e.g. wooden blocks, boxes, and various loose parts.)

Physical Play can happen inside or outside and is important for improving coordination, strength, body and safety awareness.

Expressive Play supports creativity using drawing, coloring, writing, creating music and dancing.

Competitive Play helps children develop an understanding of what is fair, how to follow rules and take turns.

Fantasy and Pretend Play uses and further develops children’s imagination and helps to build social skills and relationships while also challenging children to problem solve.

To support your child’s development through play, consider the following:

Allow Time for Unstructured Play

  • Although participation in scheduled sports/activities help children to develop specific motor skills, the ability to attend to task, take turns, and follow directions this should not fill all your child’s time. If your child’s day is filled with structured activities, consider letting something go. Unstructured, child-directed play is just as (if not more) important!
  • Unstructured play is child-directed and without boundaries. It is imaginative and fun. Unstructured play allows children to create their own rules or no rules at all and has been proven to support brain development in children.

Provide Open-Ended Toys

  • Another thing you can do is provide open-ended toys and refrain from having too many toys. Recent research suggests fewer toys because it results in children playing for longer and more creatively with each toy. Items such as blocks, marble runs, magnet tiles, dress up materials, toy animals, dolls, and cars provide children the opportunity to play without boundaries. Sensory activities such as water play and play dough are also great.


  • The American Academy of Pediatrics says use of screen media for children younger than 18 months should be avoided. Parents of children 18 to 24 months of age who want to introduce digital media should choose high-quality programming and watch it with their children to help them understand what they're seeing. For children 2 to 5 years, screen time should be limited to 1 hour per day of high-quality programs. Parents should co-view media with their child and apply it to the world around them. For children ages 6 and older, consistent limits should be placed on the time spent using media, the types of media, and make sure media does not take the place of adequate sleep, physical activity and other behaviors essential to health. Families should designate media-free times together, such as dinner or driving, as well as media-free locations at home, such as bedrooms.
  • Many studies indicate delayed cognitive development due to children being exposed to electronics for extended periods of time. Too much screen time too soon has been shown to affect the ability to focus, concentrate, and attend. In addition, it can affect how children sense and respond to other people’s attitudes and how they communicate.
  • We live in a busy world, so we must be realistic when it comes to screens. Small doses of high quality, appropriate programming is just fine although screen time should not be a replacement for real games, toys, pictures, or books. I often suggest a simple switch from allowing children to watch a show on a tablet to putting a show on the TV. This simple change makes the show something that everyone is a part of and decreases the isolation that tablets can encourage. Additionally, using screens as a crutch during every minute of down time such as in the car, at the store or in a restaurant can impair children’s ability to learn necessary life skills such as waiting, being bored, and learning to entertain themselves.
  • As adults we must model the desired behavior. When a child sees you with a phone or tablet, they don’t know whether you’re making a phone call, writing an email, playing a game, taking a picture, or reading a book. It is important for us to unplug as well and spend time in our own non-electronic leisure and play activities. Children imitate what they see others doing.

Play with me

  • Life is busy but taking to join your child in play can make a difference. This can include more structured play such as reading books or playing a game or joining them in imaginary play.
  • As adults, imaginary or pretend play can be daunting and repetitive but also be a lot of fun. Allow your child to call the shots, follow their lead and ask questions. Even 15 minutes of play will strengthen your connection with your child and has been shown to relieve stress, improve brain function and ward off depression. Playing stimulates the mind and boosts creativity while helping you feel young and energetic.

It’s okay to be bored!

  • Boredom can be defined as the often-unpleasant feeling associated with a lack of stimulation. Due to, or despite these unpleasant feelings, boredom has been shown to increase creativity because it is motivating to find something to do. Many authors and artists note that they have been most inspired when bored.
  • Very young children may need some initial support to decide what to do when not entertained, i.e. open-ended toys or suggestions for how to play differently with familiar toys. It is ok for kids to have to wait, to sit and be quiet, to look out the window. Delaying gratification and being okay when not entertained is a necessary life skill.
  • The more time children are left to be bored the better they become at entertaining themselves. Practice makes progress and we must allow them to practice this necessary life skill!


The Family Center hosts Play Central, a drop-in setting for parents, grandparents and caregivers to play with their children while socializing in an indoor play setting. Mondays and Wednesdays 9-11am, from October – April. Visit for more information.

Lauren Vanderlist is an occupational therapist with over nine years of experience working with children. She graduated from Washington University in St. Louis with a Master of Science in Occupational Therapy. Lauren has practiced in a variety of settings and worked with children of all ages and diagnoses. She is also a Certified PLAY Project Consultant, providing specialized services to young children with autism and their families. Lauren currently provides home-based occupational therapy and PLAY Project services. She can be reached at (248) 629-0193 or You can also visit for more information. Lauren is a member of The Family Center’s Association of Professionals.

Strong Families * Vibrant Community

The Family Center is a nonprofit organization that provides resources and preventative education to empower families to successfully navigate life’s social, emotional and physical challenges. The Family Center is completely supported by community donations. To learn more, visit, call 313.447.1374 or email

The Family Center does not endorse or recommend the individuals or businesses who have provided the information contained on this page and the individuals and businesses who have provided this information are solely responsible for the content of the information provided. The Family Center provides this information "as is" without any warranties of any kind and disclaims liability for damages of any kind resulting from the use of this information.