What Infants, Toddlers, and Preschoolers Learn from Play: 12 Ideas

What Infants, Toddlers, and Preschoolers Learn from Play: 12 Ideas

Honig, Alice Sterling

[Editor’s Note: This is an adaptation of a presentation given in spring 2005 at the AMS Annual Conference in Chicago.]

1. Play Enhances Bodily Gracefulness

Placing babies on their tummies on a safe warm floor surface gives them opportunities to stretch and reach for favorite chew toys. As they push up on their arms they practice coordination of their shoulder and chest muscles.

Preschoolers learn dexterity and hand-eye coordination through play. They spin tops, stack blocks, wind-up a Jackin-the-box toy, and try out ways to solve the chain bolt or buttoning activity on a busy board. The various hand motions required to latch, to lace, to twirl a top, and more all enhance hand dexterity.

Infants and toddlers learn wrist coordination as they self-feed with a spoon, use toys that require them to twist the cap off a plastic jar, or turn a long cylinder upside down to watch snowflakes inside the toy drift down. Wrist control is the last motor hand coordination, after superior pincer prehension, that toddlers have to learn. Teachers help by providing interesting toys, such as beanbags. Throwing a soft yarn ball into baskets placed nearer or farther away is another good wrist control game. Wind-up toys require wrist coordination as well.

Coordination of lower body muscles is enhanced as children try, in wobbly ways at first, to learn how to ride a tricycle or scooter, play a sport, or dance to music. Play with basketballs, baseballs, and soccer balls helps a child coordinate harmonious use of both sides of the body, and develops surety and dominion over body movement in space. As well, children learn separate uses for each side of the body. A child can shoot a basketball with her hands together or just use one hand as she tries for a “slam dunk” into the basket.

Other “hold-operate” skills are learned through play. During art play, a toddler steadies her sheet of paper on the table and cheerfully scribbles a “picture” with her other hand. Children hold a Pop-it bead necklace with one hand and try to pull apart or push together two beads. This challenging activity provides an opportunity for push and pull with fingers until a child gets the beads to form a necklace, or instead plops the beads in a jumble all over the floor (as some toddlers delight in doing)!

2. Play Promotes Social Skills

Older infants love pretending to talk on the phone. Toy telephones provide opportunities for babies to learn social interaction skills like “talking” with another person, even when the little one simply says “Hi” or “Bye!”

Wise teachers assist toddlers in learning how to take turns, share materials, and build with blocks together. Very young children soon learn the pleasures of playing with peers who can help put a train track together on a floor so they can act as “engineers,” riding their train cars (“zoom zoom!”) along the winding tracks and overpasses they have carefully crafted.

Adults can provide a boost to children to extend their play. Some youngsters need unobtrusive arrangement of props that stimulate more advanced sociodramatic play. Other children need adult suggestions to promote more inclusive play. “Oh,” says a teacher, hearing some preschoolers tell Sammy he cannot play house with them because they already have a mommy and a daddy and kids, “Sammy can be the postman delivering packages to your home. You will need to tell him where to set down the packages. Then you will have to sign special papers for Sammy the delivery man!” The adult may need to model prosocial solutions to a play tussle where children have not been able to come up with their own social problem-solving ideas.

Circle games, such as “Sally go round the sun; Sally go round the moon. Sally go round the chimney pots, every afternoon BOOM” promote positive peer play. “London Bridge is Falling Down” is another great social game. So too is “Musical Chairs,” if played so that every child has to find a lap to sit on (rather than be out of the game) when the music stops.

Teachers can help preschoolers and kindergarten children learn an especially challenging social skill-not excluding other children from play. Vivien Paley took on this noble task as a teacher by instituting the classroom rule “You can’t say ‘You can’t play.'” In her book by that name, she describes the day-to-day struggles of some children to understand the hurt that other children feel when they are excluded from peer play activities and why this new rule lessens social feelings of being the lonely outsider, and instead promotes peer feelings of being accepted.

Social skills in play are crucially important for children with autism. They may sit at the top of a slide, seemingly unaware of the other children who have climbed the stairs and are waiting to take a turn sliding down. Helping children tune into the emotional cues of others is an important component of teacher support for positive peer play.

3. Play Sharpens Cognitive and Language Skills

Teachers who carefully prepare materials for learning are helping children learn tasks that Piaget called “meansends separations” and “causal relationships.” If a baby pulls the string on a toy to get hold of the toy, or presses a wall button to turn on a light as her caregiver holds her up, or shakes a bell to hear it ring, she is delightedly learning that one must perform a certain action in order to get a specific effect.

The toddler who learns to bang a stick on a xylophone and, miraculously, produce some musical notes is also learning that when activities are done in a certain order, interesting events do indeed result.

Infants who play with syllables in their cribs are practicing coordination of lips, tongue, palate, and vocal chords as they enthusiastically repeat syllables and tonalities, such as “Oogie, woogie, poogie bear!”

Singing with babies and preschoolers in childcare creates a pleasurable form of play that enhances brain development and learning. Some young toddlers stretch their language ability amazingly as they try to sing along to beloved songs with their playmates at circle time. This learning seems to contradict theories that say play is purely for sensory or personal or social pleasures. Musical play involves lots of word learning, even when toddlers garble the words to “Frère Jacques” in their enthusiasm to sing that French children’s song!

4. Play Teaches Gender Roles

By 3 to 6 years of age, young children begin to play more and more with same-sex peers. How can teachers help children learn to enjoy play that they see as belonging only to members of the opposite sex? Can you bake bread and decorate a gingerbread cookie with boys as well as girls? Do girls get a chance to play with large blocks and Legos as often as boys? What could you say if preschool girls say that “boys play too rough” and that they don’t want to play with boys? Can you gracefully enjoy a little girl’s feminine gestures as she picks up a carrot stick and says “I’m doing my eyebrows” as she pretends to outline her brows with the carrot, transformed by play magic into an eyebrow pencil?

Research shows that boys prefer to play “superheroes” far more than girls and that boys frequently exclude girls from superhero play. Should we forbid such play in the classroom as legitimizing aggression and encouraging stereotypical male dominance? Sometimes we need to challenge our ideas about gender-typed play as we watch the play preferences of young children. How can we respect children’s choices and yet decrease discriminatory gender play?

5. Play Develops Understanding of Number and Time Concepts

Playing with toys with large separate parts (that cannot be swallowed!), a preschooler finds out that whether he stacks the pieces, lays them out in a circular pattern, squashes them all into a heap, or sets them out in one long row, he will still count the same number of items if he puts his finger carefully on each item as he counts.

Ideas like “soon” or “later” or “after” are difficult for young children to understand. Carefully inserting one special piece before adding another piece may be the secret to making the toy that is being constructed work. Lego blocks that fit together into three-dimensional space require learning what parts to put together first, and which ones to add on later to make the structure more stable. Learning that numerosity does not depend on configuration may be easier if children feel encouraged to experiment with different arrangements of toy animals or cars. Play that permits rearrangements and suggests different vantage points for observing materials supports this early learning of Piagetian conservation of number. What will Giana see after she shoots a small ball really fast down a metal pipe into a metal basin? What happens if she tries rolling the ball down the chute more slowly?

Math and temporal concepts are learned in awesome combination when music play is embedded daily in the curriculum. Learning the rhymes and rhythms of chants and songs helps children improve their abilities to understand patterns and sequences. Teachers respect the potentials of musical play as they offer play experiences with wrist bells, maracas, tambourines, and keyboards. As children move to musical syllables they learn one-to-one correspondence. Even 8-month-old babies can bounce once for each musical syllable!

6. Play Promotes Spatial Understanding

Learning space concepts occurs gradually through the early years. Toys that a baby can crawl through or safely clamber up help him learn about spatial relationships. Toys such as a car or truck with a front and back or a set of wooden toy trains (connected by magnets at each end) help little ones learn front and back, longer and shorter, first and last. A corn popper toy makes quite a racket. But as a toddler steers herself forward, cheerfully mindful of the wonderfully satisfying noise the corn popper makes as she drags it behind her, she is maneuvering and navigating through space-and sometimes has to solve the problem of how to continue forward if the corn popper string gets tangled around the legs of a play table.

After 3 years of age, many children still have not learned to consider bounded space over their heads while getting out from under a table. Three-dimensional toys promote spatial understanding. A toy barn or house is a fine prop. Children learn the height of the barn entrance, as they bring toys through it, from a large horse to a small chicken.

7. Play Prompts Causality Reasoning

Playing with toy materials helps children learn “if-then” syllogistic reasoning required for early scientific thinking and experimentation. Important concepts in physics and in chemistry are learned during play. Children learn how liquids mixed together form solutions with different properties, how a gyroscope works, how a lever works, how balances work. They learn that things that have rounded sides roll but things with square sides do not; they learn which objects float and which sink. Intense curiosity is fueled as teachers prepare materials for science play!

Block building is particularly suited to learning causal and space concepts, as children are constantly experimenting with blocks. Smaller blocks seem to balance on bigger ones, but not vice versa, no matter how many times a toddler determinedly tries to balance a bigger block on top of a smaller one! Other science concepts learned in play are how to group objects together by color, shape, size, or pattern design, and what smaller groups are nested within larger groups (e.g., cars and buses are vehicles; sofas and chairs are furniture).

8. Sociodramatic Play Clarifies the World of Pretend Versus Real

Children at play pretend and use their imagination and creativity. One preschooler gave his teacher a toy car, saying: “Here is one for you, and here is my car. We are going to Mars and we can drive our cars on Mars.” The teacher nodded agreeably but stayed quiet. The child looked at her, and then added reassuringly: “We just pretending!” Then he cheerfully continued talking about their trip to Mars. Imagination and pretend play are important giant steps forward in learning how to create dramatic scenarios in complex play with peers. Three-year-olds stirring Pop-it beads in a pot are pretending they are “making popcorn to eat while watching TV.” Play promotes the use of rich imagination. Indeed, sometimes an adult is nonplussed when a preschooler objects to the adult sitting down on the couch because his imaginary playmate is “already sitting there!”

9. Play Enriches Sensory and Aesthetic Appreciation

Children’s appreciation of beauty deepens as they listen to classical music or lovely lullabies. They delight in dripping strong colors onto their easel paintings. They notice how color combinations arouse different feelings as they draw pictures, decorate their Play-Doh animals, or finger paint. Their faces glow as they carefully add drops of color to a bowl of water and then rejoice in the subtle color patterns they have created.

Dancing with swirls of rainbow-colored nylon gauze adds to aesthetic pleasure as well as to bodily grace. Blowing bubbles and then chasing after them to catch them in cupped hands combines a toddler’s aesthetic pleasure with increasing hand dexterity and a gradually increasing ability to estimate the spatial distance they need to run to catch a bubble.

Children show awe and delight while watching the graceful fronds of a fern, the unfolding of a great red amaryllis bulb, the graceful flick of a goldfish’s tail as it swims in the tank. They are primed to become lovers of beauty from their earliest days. Play that involves planting flowers in a yard or forcing spring bulbs in the classroom in a bowl of pebbles and water can boost these aesthetic delights.

10. Play Extends Attention Span, Persistence, and Sense of Mastery

Some children are cautious and slow in temperament. Some are more impulsive. When children become absorbed in play opportunities they often find ways to extend their playtime. Skillful adult play partners help children with shorter attention spans extend their play bouts by providing intriguing toys and experiences. Teacher encouragements geared to the unique interests of each child strengthen each child’s ability to prolong play.

When play is child-initiated, children control the play themes. They feel empowered, and come to realize that they are capable of mastering the roles, scenarios, and logistical problems that may arise in the course of their sociodramatic play. There is no doll-sized bed to put the teddy bear to sleep in? Okay, then, what can we use as a substitute bed? As they arrange environments, teachers are superb helpers in facilitating children’s mastery of play themes.

Play promotes language mastery as well. Children talk together as they wash baby dolls in soapy water. They chatter excitedly as they play at getting “hurt people” out of a burning building, into ambulances, and then to a hospital. Social play opportunities strengthen language interactions. Dress-up clothes, kitchen corners, and tables for safe tool use promote feelings of efficacy, self-esteem, purposeful harmonious peer interactions, and a sense of accomplishment. Teachers expand vocabulary as they provide a judicious word here and there to extend children’s play, which then becomes a catalyst for richer language interchanges. When 4-year-olds engage in making roaring noises as they move toy dinosaurs in play, they often welcome the tongue-twisting long names a teacher provides: “Your stegosaurus sure stomps around! Do you think he is roaring because he hears that triceratops coming along in the forest?”

11. Children Express Emotions through Play

Children sometimes repetitively play out the central emotional concerns in their lives. Doug’s parents were fighting and arguing a lot at home. In his play at the low table with a furnished dollhouse, Doug ran a toy car over and over through the living room, then out the back door, from which he pushed the car to “crash” down on the floor. Doug scooped the car up and ran it through the same scenario over and over. Through his toy play, he was expressing the feeling that his home life was “crashing” down around him every day. Teachers need to be attuned to the sometimes-worrisome messages that some child play reveals and figure out ways to increase nurturance and safety in the preschool environment.

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 many preschoolers built block towers and crashed toy airplanes into them. They expressed their fears about that terrifying aggression through their play. Teachers may want to set aside corners for such cathartic play, while still remaining aware of the children so they do not act out aggressively toward others. In repetitious “monster” play, one child pretends to scare the others, who run away screaming. A teacher is challenged to figure out a way to acknowledge that child’s need to feel powerful and strong and also help extend his play to more elaborate scenarios that will enhance his social skills. Child play is a window for adults to observe and tune into the worries, fears, angers, and joys in children’s emotional lives.

12. Play Deepens a Child’s Sense of Serenity and Joy

Watch little children digging in the sand at a beach. They look like scruffy cherubs covered with sand. They may have mud smeared on their faces and arms. But as they dig with a plastic shovel, or drip water onto their sand castle, they are completely absorbed and content. Their bodies look so relaxed. One rarely hears crying on a beach the way one hears little ones crying on a long distance flight, where they must sit strapped in seats and cannot play in the aisles!

Children sprawled on a floor playing together sometimes giggle and laugh in an expression of sheer joy at being part of an intimate social experience. As we promote children’s play, we enhance their feelings of security, of being deeply acceptable, of being a welcomed friend. We deepen their joy in life!


Paley, V. (1992). You can’t say ‘you can’t play.’ Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Suggested Reading

Anderson, KJ. & Cavallaro, D. (2002). Parents or pop culture? Children’s heroes and role models. Childhood Education, 161-168.

Bergen, D. (Ed.) (1998). Play as a medium for learning and development: A handbook of theory and practice. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Educational Books.

Honig, A. S. (1982). Playtime learning games for young children. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.

__________ (1998). Socioculturel influences on sexual meanings embedded in playful experiences. D. P. Fromberg & D. Bergen (Eds.), Play from birth to twelve and beyond: Contents, perspectives, and meanings, 338-347. New York: Garland Press.

Johnson, J.E., Chrisie, J.E & Yawkey, T. D. (1987). Play and early child development. Glenview, IL: Scott Foresman.

Smilansky, S. & Shefatya, L. (1990). Facilitating play: A medium for promoting cognitive, socio-emotional, and academic development in young children. Gaithersburg, MD: Psychosocial and Educational Publications.

Widerstrom, A. H. (2004). Achieving learning goals through play (2nd Ed.). New York: Brookes Publishers.

ALICE STERLING HONIG is a professor emerita of child development at Syracuse University. Dr. Honig is a licensed psychologist and a fellow of the American Psychological Association and of the Society for Research in Child Development.

Copyright American Montessori Society 2006

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