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Why Play With a Child?

Children expect to play with parents and play helps both grow!

*First authors are Kayla Polcari and Patricia Ekwueme

Do you ever get to the end of the day and you feel exhausted, like you just can't do anything more and just want to relax? And then as you take off your jacket and your shoes, you hear: "Mommy! Daddy! Come play with me!" Although playing with your child may seem like a hassle, you will probably think twice about saying “no” after reading this.

As the series on play (see list below) has indicated, there are multiple benefits for children when they play including physical, mental and social health.

Play helps children develop all sorts of skills.

What does play do for a child? Two words: skill sets. What are skill sets you ask? Think of it as a child’s toolbox. At first, when they’re born, their toolbox does not have much in it. Parents and caregivers help fill the box with tools.

As babies develop and grow they begin to add tools or skills to their toolbox. Maybe parents communicated back and forth during a baby’s time in the womb and developed some initial two-way communication. But many parents wait to start two-way communication until after birth.

Adults can help children develop skill sets that make social life easy to manage.

Playing with a child is one way to help develop social and self-control skill sets. Before you know it, interactions with parents and others have helped them develop many tools or skills needed to build a bright future.

Parent-child pretend and physical play is linked with the child’s competence, gross motor skills, peer group leadership, and cognitive development, the tools we discussed (7). Interactive play can also help a child learn how to regulate their emotions better (10). Lastly, providing your child with an “enriched environment” through play can lower their stress chemicals (10).

Special Benefits of Parent-Child Play versus Play with Siblings

Now here you might be thinking: isn’t it the same thing to just have the youngest child play with the older ones. Doesn’t that have the same effect as playing with a parent? Can’t they show them the “tools of the trade”? The answer to that would have to be no. There is something about having the parent playing with their child that adds an extra special touch. Parent-child play has been shown to contribute more to a child’s ability to give structure to early social interactions than play with siblings (9).

Moreover, parents can offer a child more mature and varied play than can siblings. Of course, adults know more about the world than any child and often can widen imagination in ways that other children cannot.

Another interesting fact is that infants and preschoolers often use behaviors that require a partner while playing with parents, but are less likely to do so when playing with their siblings (9). It makes sense, doesn’t it? A child just wants to interact with the parent more. That’s the whole point. Playing with other children may be fun, but nothing beats the joy and satisfaction of getting one’s parent to play with you. Also, older siblings engage in minimal amounts of direct interaction with their younger infant siblings, while parents typically give the baby their full attention (9). It has been hypothesized that parent-child play first catalyzes the child’s development of new skills and playing with their siblings helps consolidate those skills (3).

Differences in Play with Mother and Play with Father

Is there a difference between mom and dad play? Of course. Fathers tend to participate more in physical play with the child, while mothers and children participate in more instructive and verbal play (8). Both forms are important for the child’s development. Parents wouldn’t want their children to be good only at sports, without the ability to express themselves well. Nor do parents want children to be good at talking about things and not have the ability to really “get their hands dirty” with activities. And of course, as their child continues to grow and mature, it is important that both parents make age-appropriate adjustments in their playing.

Health Benefits for the Parent

Just as it is important for both parents to play with the child for the child’s sake, both parents receive benefits from doing so. The hormone oxytocin plays a major role in parent-infant bonding and other social and emotional behaviors (4). Oxytocin levels increase when mothers engage in affectionate play with their infant and when fathers engage in stimulatory play with their infants (4). Here’s some even greater news: when parents play with children, oxytocin is release in them (10). Think of it as a relaxing massage for your mind that you don’t have to pay extra for!

How to Play with a Child

Playing with a child involves actively observing, listening, supporting, talking, and understanding (6). Be sure to provide a mutual interaction, like a conversation, but try not to continually intervene or intrude. Rather, allow them to explore their environment and sensations. Let them draw you in. Then be sure that you are engaged and collaborating, which will help the child do the same in his or her future interactions. This has been shown to contribute to a child’s peer competency (7). And don’t forget: smile, laugh, and get them to laugh. You can both enjoy this one-on-one time with your little one as you help them develop the skill set that they will soon be ready to apply on their own.

Whether or not you are a parent, playing with children will help them develop the skills they need for social life. And it will be fun for you!

NOTE: Children in our ancestral conditions play with multiple ages and adults play (tease, dance, sing) with one another. In many societies today, parents are overly busy with many more tasks than adults in ancestral conditions (who enjoy much more leisure time). So parents should take the advice as it fits with the life conditions of the family. The overall message of the series is that children should play as much as possible with multiple playmates, even in school settings, and it's better outdoors and in the natural world.

Kayla Polcari and Patricia Ekwueme are students at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, USA.


1. Baskett, L. M., & Johnson, S. M. (1982). The young child's interactions with parents versus siblings: A behavioral analysis. Child Development, 53(3), 643-650.

2. Dunn, J. (1983). Sibling relationships in early childhood. Child Development, 54(4), 787-811.

3. Dunn, J., Wooding, C., & Hermann, J. (1977). Mothers' speech to young children: Variation in context. Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology, 19(5), 629-638.

4. Feldman, R., Gordon, I., Schneiderman, I., Weisman, O., & Zagoory-Sharon, O. (2010). Natural variations in maternal and paternal care are associated with systematic changes in oxytocin following parent–infant contact. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 35(8), 1133-1141. doi:

5. Feldman, R., Gordon, I., & Zagoory-Sharon, O. (2010). The cross-generation transmission of oxytocin in humans. Hormones and Behavior, 58(4), 669-676. 6. Lin, Y. (2010). Improving parent-child relationships through block play. Education, 130(3), 461-469.

7. Lindsey, E. W., & Mize, J. (2000). Parent–child physical and pretense play: Links tochildren's social competence. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 46(4), 565-591.

8. MacDonald, K., & Parke, R. D. (1986). Parent-child physical play: The effects of sex and age of children and parents. Sex Roles, 15(7-8), 367-378.

9. Stevenson, M. B., Leavitt, L. A., Thompson, R. H., & Roach, M. A. (1988). A social relations model analysis of parent and child play. Developmental Psychology, 24(1), 101-108.

10. Sunderland, M. (2006). Science of parenting: practical guidance on sleep, crying, play, and building emotional well-being for life. New York: Dorling Kindersley.


1 Happiness and Growth Through Play

2 Playing with Heart

3 Children May Be Playing, But Their Brains Are Working

4 Is Pretend Play Good For Kids?

5 Playing at School: More Important Than We Thought?

6 Does Too Much Screen Time Make Kids Sick?

7 Infant Couch Potatoes

8 What's Better: Indoor or Outdoor Play?

9 Why Play with a Child?

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