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List of Four Functions of Play in Childhood Development

author image Gail Sessoms
Gail Sessoms, a grant writer and nonprofit consultant, writes about nonprofit, small business and personal finance issues. She volunteers as a court-appointed child advocate, has a background in social services and writes about issues important to families. Sessoms holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in liberal studies.
List of Four Functions of Play in Childhood Development
Play helps children develop physically and emotionally. Photo Credit Brand X Pictures/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images

The phrase “play is a child’s work” illustrates the importance of play in child development. Child health workers have identified several critical developmental functions of play. The National Center for Infants, Toddlers and Children explains on its Zero to Three website that a lot of learning occurs while children are playing. Play has at least four critical functions that contribute to the major areas of child development.

Play Types and Development

When your child plays, he's having fun, but he also is engaging in a complex process of learning and development. The Montana State University Extension office lists 11 types of play, including unoccupied, solitary, onlooker, motor-physical, constructive and fantasy, which occur along a continuum as children grow and develop the skills and capabilities required. For instance, infants are engaged in unoccupied play when they focus on random movements. From ages 3 months to 3 years, children progress through several types of play from watching other children play to playing with other children. Play helps your child move through the developmental milestones along the road to adulthood.

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Children learn from doing, which gives play a cognitive function. Play develops cognitive skills when children have to think and remember processes and rules. Children develop language skills and learn about the world and how it works. During play, children learn about sizes, shapes, colors and textures. Peek-a-boo teaches infants that unseen objects still exist. Counting games teach numbers. Play encourages children to explore creativity and imagination. As children solve problems during play, they learn to reason and develop their decision-making skills.


The physical function of play helps children develop strong muscles, bones and stamina. Play helps develop the brain as children interact with people and the world around them. Playing with an infant while she is on her stomach helps strengthen her neck muscles. Children learn to crawl, walk, run and jump as they learn to use large muscle groups in gross motor development. Fine motor skills are developed when children pick up toys, hold a crayon, use building blocks and sing songs that teach hand gestures or other movements. Play helps children develop balance, speed and coordination.


Children develop social skills through play when they learn about taking turns and sharing, rules, negotiation, cooperation and conflict resolution. Your child will learn which behaviors are inappropriate, such as hitting, and how to apologize and make amends. Children need the social skills learned during play to enter the adult world. While playing with others, children begin to develop characteristics such as kindness, empathy and self-control. Children begin to develop morals and to understand more about consequences.


The emotional function of play in child development begins with parental bonding. When you play with your child, he learns he is loved, his self-esteem is enhanced and he learns how to build healthy relationships, according to the website Zero to Three. Your child learns to succeed through play, but he also learns how to react to disappointment. As he masters his world, he develops new skills, acquires more knowledge and builds his confidence and resiliency. Play gives your child opportunities to develop his self and discover his interests and strengths.

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