Children begin playing very early in life. When infants pick up objects and shake them up and down, bang them on the table, or roll them around in their hands, they are playing.

Play develops over time, from very simple to more complex actions. The skills a child develops in infancy and toddlerhood create the foundation from which they build upon over time. Infants’ early attempts to manipulate objects help them develop problem-solving and motor skills that will enable them, over time, to learn how to fit puzzle pieces together.

Many adults think of play as something children do to fill time between important activities. Actually, play is one of the most important ways young children learn about the world. Through play, children explore the world, learn valuable information, and build networks of connections in the brain.

Free Play vs. Guided Play

Free play is play that is child-initiated and child-directed. During this type of play, children are motivated by their own curiosity. They choose what to play with, how long to play, and who they want to engage with in play.

Guided play is play that is adult-initiated and child-directed. The child still directs how they play and what they want to play with, but an adult is present to ensure that child progresses toward a specific learning goal. The adult can introduce an activity, provide verbal feedback, or model behaviors if necessary. No matter what, the child is in control of what is happening during the play.

Both free and guided play are effective ways to strengthen connections in the brain. Children should have opportunities to play each day.