Module 7: Play & development

In this module, you will be introduced to some key theorists in the area of play and development and given a basic understanding of some of the research that has, and is, being undertaken into the effects of play on the human brain. You will gain an understanding of why the right kind of play optimises development of the child holistically (not just intellectually) and supports empathy in parenting. We will then look at the new ToddlerCalm strategy for "building better brains" through effective play. This module and its corresponding programme for parents is very much in development because we are creating something much better than we have had previously. Any updates will be provided to you as they are properly developed.

Play and development theories


Introduction to play and development theory

Play is the key feature of childhood. It is top of the job description of any toddler and is essential to their wellbeing. But why? What does "playing" offer and why do children need to play? Why don't adults need to play all the time? And how can we help our toddlers play in a way that is best for them and their future?

Now that we have explored some neurobiology and psychology, you may understand quite well the answer to some of these questions. We have already investigated a number of key child development theories in reasonable depth including: 

  • Piaget's cognitive development theory (little scientists)
  • Bowlby's attachment theory
  • Bandura's social learning theory
  • Vygotsky's socio-cultural theory

From this basis, in this section we will explore the theories and work of a few key pioneers in the area more specific to development through play. 

Play is the way in which toddlers learn about their world, deal with their emotions and connect with other people. Play is key to pretty much every aspect of child development (cognitive, emotional, and social) and with the right understanding of the theories surrounding play, we can ensure that we are optimising our toddler's development across the board. We can literally give them the best possible chances in mental health, relationship happiness and success in life by creating and reinforcing the right connections in their brains, through play.

The theories of Maria Montessori

Maria Montesori

Maria Montessori was an Italian physician and educator best known for the her philosophy of education that now bears her name and her writing on scientific pedagogy. Her educational method is in use today in some public and private schools throughout the world. Please watch the video about the life and work of Maria Montessori:

Maria taught these main principles: 

1. Independence

“Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed.” – Maria Montessori.

It is always a goal of Montessori education in the classroom to give the child independence and allow them to be able to do things for themselves. This is achieved by giving children opportunities - opportunities to move, to dress themselves, to choose what they want to do, and to help the adults with tasks. When the children are able to do things for themselves there is an increase in their self belief, self confidence and esteem that they may carry on throughout their life.

2. Observation

Observation, or watching the child is easy to do for parents unless they are distracted. We can spend countless hours just watching children and see how they are enjoying themselves, exploring their environment. This is essentially how Montessori learned about children and developed her theories on child development. She observed without preconceived ideas, helping her to develop materials that the children needed and were interested in. She also noted the benefits of observing to understand more fully what the individual child's needs are.

For example, if a child starts banging on objects, it means that he has a need for that gross motor activity, so give him a drum. If children are pushing things around the room and they need to walk but can’t do it themselves yet, help them or give them a wagon to push. This is how observation can help create harmony, fulfilling the child’s current needs.

3. Following the child

"Follow the child, they will show you what they need to do, what they need to develop in themselves and what area they need to be challenged in. The aim of the children who persevere in their work with an object is certainly not to 'learn'; they are drawn to it by the needs of their inner life, which must be recognised and developed by its means.” – Maria Montessori.

From what you have observed from the actions of the children, follow them in what they need to do. If they want to climb, give them the opportunity to climb in a safe manner, do not be overprotective. Following the child also means being non-directive, do not tell them what to do all the time. Give your child the freedom to choose what he wants or needs to do and to act on his own.

Do not tell them what they have to do, but rather present them with choices of different materials/toys. Also, stand back and watch the child what he does, there is no need to intervene all the time unless he has become really destructive and about to hurt himself or others. Knowing when to intervene is a skill parents will learn as they get to know their child and as parents have set limits for the child.

4. Correcting The Child

Children make mistakes. They may spill something, drop food unintentionally and so on. There is no need to raise your voice in situations like those. Instead, calmly recognise the mistake “oh you’ve spilled the water…, why don’t we get a cloth and wipe it up.” This is an opportunity to ask the child to do some valid practical work with you. You will find that children do like to clean up as they see it as something adults do. There is no need to blatantly point out a child’s mistake, there is a way to make them realise it.

For example, with a cloth bib a child who is learning how drink from a glass will find out that if he tips the glass a bit too early, the water will spill on him and he will feel it. If they mispronounce a word, there is no need to correct them, but rather say the word correctly. Correcting children may result in them being scared to attempt anything in fear of making another mistake.

Children will make mistakes and we need to teach them in a nice manner. Giving the children freedom and choice, supporting them in their choice by making sure they are safe, feeding their inquiring minds in a way that they can understand, and observing their needs and fulfilling these can be the key to helping your children develop their full potential.

5. Prepared Environment

“The teacher’s first duty is to watch over the environment, and this takes precedence over all the rest. It’s influence is indirect, but unless it be well done there will be no effective and permanent results of any kind, physical, intellectual or spiritual.” – Maria Montessori.

The prepared environment is important part of Montessori. It is the link for a child to learn from adults. Rooms are child sized with activities set up for success and allow freedom of movement and choice. The environment has to be safe for the child to explore freely. The environment has to be ready and beautiful for the children so it invites them to work.

Montessori refers to work as an activity the child does or what many people might call play. She calls this work since it is through this that they create themselves and it is not just a play. Their play is their work and they are still enjoying it. The adult’s role then is to construct the environment in which they will learn. The development of the child is therefore dependent on the environment she or he is in, and this environment also includes the parents.

6. Absorbent Mind

Montessori observed how children learned the language without anyone teaching them. This sparked her idea for the “absorbent mind”. Children under the age of three do not need to have lessons in order to learn, they simply absorb everything in the environment by experiencing it, being part of it. It is therefore important that the environment set up is good, nice and positive since this is what the child will absorb whether he chooses to or not.

The language of the adult is one that a child will easily pick up. Be careful of what you say around them. Even though you think they are not listening, as they may not be able to express themselves yet, when they can you will not want them swearing back at you. It is for this reason that one should not try to say “No” to a child. We do not want them saying “No” to us rudely. Instead, we say “Stop” when we want to tell children that what they are doing is wrong.

Much of this information is taken from where you can find much more detail and support in how to apply Montessori principles with your child. 

What can we learn from Montessori?

Although Montessori was looking at this from the perspective of an educator in a school-like setting, many of these principles can be used by parents to support a child's need to play in order to develop. Solid principles which are now backed up by research include, providing children with freedom in their play, using modelling, using language that supports learning rather than shames children, trusting in children's competence, giving them opportunities for early independence, using play to understand children better and letting them lead us.

The theories of Friedrich Froebel

Friedrich Froebel

Friedrich W. A. Froebel was a 19th Century German pedagogue, who was a pioneer in education for very young children. Froebel was the founder of the ‘kindergarten’ (c.1840) which was a unique educational setting for young children. His ideas about early care and education have a legacy that has spread throughout the world through the teachers that he educated who set up kindergartens and training centres. Froebel’s legacy has also been carried forward by those who were inspired by his wisdom regarding the principle of unity which guides learning, the importance of play, the value of learning through nature and the outdoor learning environment.

Froebel is famous for his radical insight that the first learning experiences of the very young influence not only their later educational achievements but also the health and development of society as a whole. This is now widely understood by neuroscientists and psychologists as being true.

Key aspects of Froebelian practice and pedagogy are outdoor experiences, gardening, songs and games, the use of Froebel ‘Gifts’ and engagement in what he called ‘Occupations.’ 

Froebel's gifts

Froebel’s original ‘Gifts’ are a series of specifically designed objects that were meant to be given to children to explore and create. The objects were designed to be used in open-ended play activities, and each gift was meant to help the child begin to understand the properties or affordances of objects in relation to him/herself and the surrounding world. 

There are 6 original Froebel Gifts that are meant to be ‘given’ to children in order, as they age:

Gift 1: Set of multi-coloured yarn balls with strings (for the infant)

Gift 2: Wooden ball, cylinder, and cube (for the 1-2 year old)

Gift 3: Set of 8 small wooden cubes (blocks) (for the 2-3 year old)

Gift 4: Set of 8 small wooden planks (blocks) (for the 2-3 year old)

Gift 5: Set of wooden blocks that includes cubes, planks, and triangles(blocks) (for the 3-4 year old)

Gift 6: Set of more complex wooden blocks that includes cubes, planks,triangles (blocks) (for the 4-5 year old)

Froebel’s Gifts were the first ‘educational’ play things. The Gifts are made of natural materials, and are specifically designed to demonstrate the key concept of spiritual ‘unity’ that can be recognised in play, which Froebel believed to be the clearest expression of the human soul.

Froebel's occupations

Froebel’s occupations are activities which help the learner to develop practical skills in relation to his/her emerging capacities (physically and intellectually). The occupations are activities such as modelling clay, paper folding, cutting, weaving, drawing, painting, and sewing. A key distinction between the gifts and the occupations is that the materials used in gift play are meant to demonstrate that matter, in the form of these solid objects can only be transformed, and not changed, altered, or destroyed. Gifts are presented in the form of a ‘whole’ which is comprised of parts that are returned to their original state. The materials used in occupations demonstrate that modifications can be made to alter the form and purpose of matter into new creations. For example, paint and paper can be used to create representational art in the form of a painting.

What can we learn from Froebel?

The interesting thing about Froebel's concepts is that his approach highlighted, before any scientific research, that there were different types of play and that they were both important in isolation form each other and when blended. In the following sections you will hear about object play, creative play and physical movement play that fit with Froebel's theory. Froebel also highlighted that environment for learning is key and that freedom and nature were fundamental to children discovering their world through play.

The theory of Heuristic play

The theory of Heuristic Play

Elinor Goldschmied and Sonia Jackson are famous for introducing us to the phrase ‘Heuristic Play’ in the 1980s, which they used to describe giving toddlers the opportunity to find out about objects of their own accord. This was not a new concept but they did take it in a different way and deeper than others had. 

The word Heuristic indeed is derived from the Greek word ‘Eeurisko’ - “serves to discover or gain an understanding of”. In Heuristic play we offer toddlers a range of objects to explore freely and thoroughly in their own time with as little adult intervention as possible, giving them crucial control over their own play.

Toddlers are naturally curious about the world. Called ‘Little Scientists’ by Piaget, they love to explore objects, manipulating them, learning about cause and effect (and forming schemas about them).

What are the most important factors of Montessori's principles?

Montessori principles which are now backed up by research include, providing children with in their play, using to show them how to be a person, using language that supports learning rather than shames children, trusting in children's , giving them opportunities for early , using play to children better and letting them lead us.

Please identify three key lessons you took from Froebel's work

The science of play


The science of play

A huge amount of existing scientific research, from neurophysiology, developmental and cognitive psychology, to animal play behaviour, and evolutionary and molecular biology, contains rich data on play. The existing research describes patterns and states of play and explains how play shapes our brains, creates our competencies, and ballasts our emotions. The research from these diverse areas of science must be integrated to depict human play mechanisms as a whole. Before we even start delving into the science, we will provide a definition of play (one of many available) and then consider three points:

Definition of play

‘Play is a process that is freely chosen, personally directed and intrinsically motivated. That is, children and young people determine and control the content and intent of their play, by following their own instincts, ideas and interests, in their own way for their own reasons.’‘All children and young people need to play. The impulse to play is innate. Play is a biological,psychological and social necessity, and is fundamental to the healthy development and well-being of individuals and communities.’

(Playwork Principles Scrutiny Group 2005)

Three play factors

1. Most play involves exploration, and exploration is, by definition, an act of investigation

It's easy to see how this applies to a budding scientist who is playing with magnets, but it also applies to far less intellectual pursuits, like the rough-and-tumble play in puppies. The animals are testing social bonds and learning how to control their impulses, so that friendly wrestling doesn't turn into anti-social aggression. Play is learning.

2. Play is self-motivated and fun

Thus, anything learned during play is knowledge gained without the perception of hard work. This is in contrast with activities that we perform as duties. When learning is perceived to be arduous, our ability to stay focused may feel like a limited resource that is drained over time (Inzlicht et al 2014). And it's hard to achieve a state of flow, the psychological experience of being totally, and happily, immersed in what you are doing. Play is an obvious gateway to the state of flow.

3. These arguments aside, there is also empirical evidence that children treat play as a tutorial for coping with real life challenges

All around the world, children engage in pretend play that simulates the sorts of activities they will need to master as adults (Lancy 2008), suggesting such play is a form of practice. And when children are fed information during pretend play, from more knowledgeable peers or adults, they take it in. Experiments on American preschoolers suggest that children as young as 3 understand and make distinctions between realistic and fanciful pretending, and use information learned from realistic pretend scenarios to understand the real world (Sutherland and Friedman 2012; 2013).

Play and neuroscience

Play and neuroscience

In 1964, Marion Diamond and her colleagues published an exciting paper about brain growth in rats. The neuroscientists had conducted a landmark experiment, raising some rats in a solitary, non-stimulating environment and others in social, toy-filled colonies. 

When researchers examined the rats’ brains, they discovered that the “enriched" rats had thicker cerebral cortices than did the “impoverished" rats (Diamond et al 1964). 

Subsequent research confirmed the results - rats raised in stimulating environments had bigger brains, were smarter and more able to problem solve, finding their way through complex mazes more quickly. (Greenough and Black 1992). Also, according to Gordon et al. (2003), after rough and tumble play sessions rats showed increased level of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF is a protein produced inside nerve cells.  The reason why it is so important to a healthy brain is because it serves as Miracle-Gro for the brain, essentially fertilising brain cells to keep them functioning and growing, as well as propelling the growth of new neurons.

Although neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin are important in helping the brain function, because they carry the signals of neurons, the protein BDNF builds and maintains the brain circuits which allow the signals to travel. BDNF levels also increased significantly after rats were freely allowed to explore (Huber et al 2007).

Unfortunately there is no ethical way to recreate these experiments in humans but scientists are convinced that due the make up of the human brain, we respond to play and exploration in similar ways.

Dr Stuart Brown's research on play

What is play and why do we do it?

From studying animals, human behaviour (particularly relating to violence), history and neuroscience, Dr Stuart Brown and his team who are researching play in the USA and promoting its importance, have found that playing is as innate a biological state as sleeping and dreaming. From looking at imaging it can even be described as an "altered state" - one that our brains need to work correctly. Play is something that "higher" mammals do instinctively because it is necessary for survival. Not just learning to survive but, like with sleep, if humans do not play, their physical and mental health declines.

It is important to understand that toddlers (and all mammals) have an innate need to play and will play, no matter what anyone does. Dr Brown set up the National Institute for Play in the USA and they are undertaking more research. They have developed a theory around patterns of play:

NIFP defined Patterns of play

Patterns of play

The National Institute for Play in the USA identifies different types (patterns) of play that are all developed naturally and are all fundamentally necessary for holistic development of the brain. Without these patterns of play occurring in early childhood, we find adults that cannot do certain fundamental things (and cannot learn them) - things like problem solving, working cooperatively and creative thinking. We will look at these now.

Attuned play

The enjoyment of interactions between infant/toddler and primary caregiver are well researched and shown clearly through EEG and other imaging technologies. This is the first type of play that humans experience and it shapes their brain in many important ways. Reciprocity of communication through parent's big smiles and rhythmic vocalisations (baby talk), providing emotional response and attention from the baby sets the grounding for the state of play. Older children continue to develop their brains through ever more complex playful interactions whether these are games, songs, or any other close contact interactions. Think nursery rhymes, peekaboo and making silly faces together.

Body play and movement

If you don’t understand human movement, you won’t really understand yourself or play. If you do, you will reap the benefits of play in your body, personal life and work situations. Learning about self movement structures an individual’s knowledge of the world. It is a way of knowing, and we actually, through movement and play, think in motion. For example the play-driven movement of leaping upward is a lesson about gravity as well as one’s body; it lights up the brain and fosters learning. Innovation, flexibility, adaptability, and resilience all have their roots in movement. The play driven pleasures associated with exploratory body movements, rhythmic early speech (moving vocal cords), locomotor and rotational activity, are done for their own sake; pleasurable, and intrinsically playful. They sculpt the brain, and ready the player for the unexpected and unusual.

Object play

Playing with “objects” is a pervasive innately fun pattern of play, that creates its own “states” of playfulness. Early on, toys take on highly personalised characteristics, and as skills in manipulating objects (i.e., banging on pans, skipping rocks, etc.) develop, the richer become the circuits in the brain. 

Playing with all types of objects help brains develop beyond strictly manipulative skills, with play as the driver of this development. The correlation of effective adult problem solving and earlier encouragement of and facility in manipulating objects has been established. The science of progressively more complex object play and its relation to overall competency has sparked research interest in corporate “work readiness”, in that a deficiency in fixing things by hand during one’s youth may well mean deficiencies in complex problem solving in challenging work settings as an adult. As with body play, when we explore objects we don't just discover the object, but the whole world around it.

Social play

From the simplest romp and wrestling of young animals to the most jocular and complex banter of close friends, social play is a key aspect of play behaviour.

The science of social play is complex, but can be studied selectively. The NIFP has a particular interest in early parent-infant play, better understanding of the signals that herald and maintain social play and how this relates to innate behaviours shown in animals. Social play teaches children about the "rules" of working with others at a very early stage.

Imaginative and pretend play

The ability of the young child to create their own sense of their mind, and that of others, takes place through pretend play, which continues to nourish the spirit throughout life, and remains key to innovation and creativity. Deprivation studies uphold the importance of this pattern of play, as understanding and trusting others and developing coping skills depends on its presence.

Narrative play (story-telling)

Storytelling, the way most kids love to learn, is, when under the play microscope, identified as the unit of human intelligibility.

Making sense of the world, its parts and one’s particular place in it is a central aspect of early development. And as we grow, the constancy of stories that enliven and help us understand ourselves and others, from a parent’s telling how it was when they were young, to media-driven stories; all involve us in a never ending fun-giving experience. They give us permission to expand our own inner stream of consciousness, enrich our personal narratives with pleasure and fun as our own life stories unfold. “What is the current movie of your life?” If it has comedic overtones, it is likely that your play quiver is more than half full.

It is in their capacity to produce a sense of timelessness, pleasure and the altered state of vicarious involvement that identifies narrative and storytelling with states of play.

Creative play

We can access fantasy-play to transcend the reality of our ordinary lives, and in the process germinate new ideas, and shape and re-shape them. Given enriched circumstances, and access to novelty, our play drive takes us into these realms spontaneously. Whether like Einstein imaginatively riding pleasurably on a sunbeam at the speed of light, or a light-hearted group of corporate designers wildly imagining a new product, each is using their playfulness to innovate and create. With the advent of brain imaging technology, these natural tendencies, so important to adaptation in a changing world, may be better understood and fostered. Play + Science = Transformation.

Literature review of play types

Literature review of the play types

In this section you will find evidence from a  number of sources regarding the cognitive benefits of different play types.

Active play

Opportunities for play, throughout childhood, contribute to the opportunities that are available to them and their development. Active toddlers who grow up enjoying physically active play, especially in natural environments, are laying the foundations for better health and a longer life than sedentary children (Pretty et al. 2009). Active play is the most common type of physical activity children take part in outside of school, and outdoor unstructured play may be one of the best forms of physical activity for children (BHF 2009).

A variety of sources indicate a direct relationship between physical activity and children’s health (Hope et al. 2007). In early childhood physical exercise helps build strong bones, muscle strength and lung capacity (Lindon 2007). It also increases cognitive function, improves academic achievement in the long term and accelerates neuro-cognitive processing. In addition, it appears that active children are less likely to smoke, to abuse alcohol or take illegal drugs as they grow up (BHF 2009). There is also evidence that exercise breeds exercise; a study of children in the east of England who cycle to school  been found that those children were much more active at other times and aerobically fitter.

Several studies have shown that playing is good for developing motor function, and most babies and toddlers acquire fundamental movement skills through unstructured physical activity and play.


Play that involves contact with nature appears to have a positive effect on recovery from stress and attention fatigue and on mood, concentration, self-discipline and physiological stress (HC Netherlands 2004). Some preliminary research has also shown that woodland particularly can provide a sanctuary for children who live either in cities and towns or in the country, reducing self-reported stress.

Musical play

Musical play is an under-researched area, despite being a highly significant form of play in all human cultures. From a very early age, children sing, dance and delight in exploring and making sounds of all kinds, with their own bodies and with all kinds of objects. In extensive research of early mother-infant interactions, Trevarthen (1999) has clearly illustrated the role of the human infants innate response to rhythm and sounds in establishing early communicative abilities. A recent review of research in this area concluded that it seems likely that musical play, partly as a consequence of its powerfully social and interactive characteristics, supports a wide range of childrens developing abilities, including those related to social interaction, communication, emotion understanding, memory, self-regulation and creativity (Pound, 2010). 

In a study which involved 96 four-year-olds in joint music making,  Kirschner and Tomasello (2010) showed that these children significantly increased subsequent spontaneous cooperative and helpful behaviour, relative to a carefully matched control condition with the same level of social and linguistic interaction but no music.

Role play

Psychologist Edward Fisher analyzed 46 published studies of the cognitive benefits of play (Fisher 1999). He found that “sociodramatic play", what happens when children pretend together, “results in improved performances in both cognitive-linguistic and social affective domains", essentially language and social skills.

A study of British children, aged 1-6 years, measured childrens’ capacity for symbolic play (Lewis et al 2000). They were asked to perform such symbolic tasks as substituting a teddy bear for an absent object. Researchers found that those who scored higher on a test of symbolic play had better language skills, both receptive language (what a child understands) and expressive language (the words they speak). These results remained significant even after controlling for the age of the child.

Divergent problem solving isn't the only cognitive skill linked with make-believe. Pretend play has also been correlated with two crucial skill sets: the ability to self-regulate (impulses, emotions, attention) and the ability to reason counter-factually. 

In the first case, studies report that children who engage in frequent, pretend play have stronger self-regulation skills (developing the ability to control their tempers). Although more research is needed to determine if the link is causal (Lillard et al 2013), the data are consistent with this possibility. Also intuitively we can assume its likelihood as you can't pretend with another person unless both of you agree about what you are pretending. So players must conform to a set of rules, and practice conforming to such rules might help children develop better self-control over time.

In the second case, many researchers have noted similarities between pretend play and counterfactual reasoning, the ability to make inferences about events that have not actually occurred. Alison Gopnik and her colleagues (Walker and Gopnik 2013; Buchsbaum et al 2012) argue that counterfactual reasoning helps us plan and learn by permitting us to think through "what if" scenarios. Pretend play taps into the same skill set. So perhaps pretend play provides children with valuable opportunities to improve their reasoning about possible worlds, and even consequences of future actions.

In support of this idea, researchers found evidence of a link between counterfactual reasoning and pretend play in preschoolers, and this correlation remained statistically significant even after controlling for a child's ability to suppress their impulses (Buchsbaum et al 2012).

Object play

In a Community Practitioner article, health expert June Thompson (2000) explains how playing with toys is pivotal to a child’s physical development. For example, between the ages of three and six months a baby will start to reach, grasp and explore objects and handle suitable toys, vital to hand-eye coordination and fine motor control. From the ages of six to twelve months, young children are increasingly mobile, quickly developing ‘manual dexterity’ (p. 844). During the second year, playing with toys that can be pushed or pulled helps walking and balance.

The article highlights the role of playing with toys for learning manipulative skills and allowing movements such as twisting, screwing, turning and opening.

A study by Pellegrini and Gustafson (2005), in which three to five year olds were systematically observed over an entire school year, demonstrated that the amount of playful exploration, construction and tool use in which children engaged predicted their subsequent performance on physical problem-solving tasks. Play with objects is also particularly associated with the production of private speech, with children commonly commentating on their activity. This appears to have the function of helping the child to maintain their attention, keep their goals for the activity in mind, monitor their progress, make strategic choices regarding ways to proceed, and generally regulate themselves through the task. As a consequence, construction and problem-solving play is also associated with the development of perseverance and a positive attitude towards challenge (Sylva, Bruner and Genova, 1976).

Social play

Young children are strongly motivated to make sense of their world and, as part of this, they are very interested in rules. As a consequence, from a very young age, they enjoy games with rules, and frequently invent their own. Opie and Opies (1959) collections of children games and folklore are a testament to childrens love of games with rules. These include physical games such as chasing games, hide-and-seek, throwing and catching etc. and, as children mature, more intellectual games such as board and card games, electronic and computer games, and a whole variety of sporting activities.

As well as helping children to develop their understandings about rules, the main developmental contribution of playing games derives from their essentially social nature. While playing games with their friends, siblings and parents, young children are learning a range of social skills related to sharing, taking turns, understanding othersperspectives and similar (DeVries, 2006).

A note regarding computer games

The use of electronic and computer games by todays children is another particular area of anxiety for parents and teachers. The concerns often relate to violence and to the addictive nature of some games. However, the evidence in this area is equivocal. A recent survey of 346 children from the 7th and 8th grade of seven elementary schools in the United States, for example, found that playing videogames did not appear to take place at the expense of childrens other leisure activities, social integration, and school performance. There was also no significant relationship between the amount of time children spent on video games and aggressive behaviour. Furthermore, a positive relationship was found between time spent on video games and a childs intelligence (Van Schie and Wiegman, 1997). Other studies in the UK have shown, furthermore, that well-designed computer games offering open-ended or problem-solving challenges to children are likely to share some of the benefits of problem-solving or constructional play with objects (Siraj-Blatchford and Whitebread, 2003).

Freedom and structure


Allowing freedom

The British Toy and Hobby Association (2011b) maintains that children who have the freedom and opportunities to play have stronger friendships, are more joyful, secure and cooperative than those who do not. Play in early childhood allows children to give voice to their experiences and to have a safe place to express confusing and painful feelings, and to find ways of overcoming emotional traumas (Hirschland 2009).

One issue with play is that adults tend to restrict children’s opportunities for playing. Often the idea used by well-meaning educators "learning through play" has come to (in some settings) replace free, self-directed play, with structured or educational activities (Hofferth and Sandberg 2000). American writer David Elkind claims the role of free play in physical and psychological well-being has been ‘overlooked’ in many areas. 

Several experimental studies show that school children pay more attention to academics after they’ve had an unstructured break in which they are free to play without direction from adults (see Pellegrini and Holmes 2006 for a review). There is some circumstantial evidence, too; Chinese and Japanese students, who are among the best achievers in the world, attend schools that provide short breaks every 50 minutes (Stevenson and Lee 1990).

Note that physical education classes are not effective substitutes for free playtime (Bjorkland and Pellegrini 2000). Although physical exercise has important cognitive benefits in its own right, physical education classes don't deliver the same benefits. Researchers suspect this is because PE classes are too structured and rely too much on adult-imposed rules. To reap all the benefits of play, a play break must be child-led.

In early childhood it is important to support and encourage self-directed play activities even if these appear meaningless to adults. Allowing a child time and freedom to complete these activities to their own satisfaction supports the child’s ability to concentrate (Elkind 2007). It also is supported by the idea that a child knows instinctively how to develop, given the right opportunities.


Children benefit from being able to take risks and challenge themselves (Gill 2007). Some commentators argue that if children are not allowed to take risks they may grow up over-cautious in many everyday situations, or be unable to judge potentially dangerous situations, placing themselves in danger (Gleave 2008). The importance of risk-taking to children’s neurological, emotional and social development has also been widely discussed (Gladwin and Collins 2008).

Sandseter et al. (2011) provide compelling evidence that taking risks in play is a natural coping mechanism, which helps to reduce fears and tackle phobias. In this sense, risk-taking in play, mirrors many aspects of cognitive behavioural therapy; by thinking less negatively about anxieties it can help to reduce anxious behaviour. Over-protection can cause children to become more anxious and develop behaviours associated with anxiety throughout their lives.

Children’s ability to cope with difficult situations and to recover from, or adapt to, adversity whilst playing, can help them to develop strategies for reacting to real situations (Lester and Russell 2008).

The complex nature of play makes it central to children’s developing resilience as they grow up. Lindon defines resilience as ‘an outlook for children and young people characterised by the willingness to confront challenges, with a sense of confidence that it is possible to deal with setbacks. Resilience is built from a foundation of emotional security that key, familiar adults will help’ (Lindon 2007: 7).

Freedom using toys

Toys appear to play an important role in children’s cognitive development. However, children may not use these toys in the ways that have been intended. Children use their creativity to play with toys in their own ways. Therefore, researchers argue that children should have access to as many kinds of toys as possible and to toys that allow for as many different uses as possible. Singer (1994) states: ‘Children play longer when a wide variety of toys is available. Playful children are more physically active, creative, humorous, imaginative, emotionally expressive, curious and communicative’ (Singer 1994).

Elardo et al. (1975) found that access to a variety of toys during infancy was associated with higher IQ levels at the age of three, irrelevant of ethnicity, gender or social class. 

Playing with other children

Playing with other children

Playing with other children affects the ways in which children relate to each other, form groups and feel part of a group or part of their local community. When children play they use their own language, rules and values and play helps them to develop their own identities (Casey 2010). Children who are able to play freely with their peers develop skills for seeing things through another person’s point-of-view, for cooperating, helping, sharing, and solving problems (Open University 2011). 

The act of playing can overcome cultural and other boundaries and help children to understand others who they might consider to be different from themselves and for disabled children, who are prone to social isolation, play can be an important way of creating bonds with other children (Dunn et al. 2004). 

Playing with care-givers

Playing with parents

Power (2000) argues that parents have an influential role when playing with children. When young children involve their parents in play their behaviour tends to be more complex and symbolic compared to when they play alone or with friends. He states: ‘When parents play with infants and young children, the complexity of children’s behaviour increases substantially both in the duration of the social interactions and in the developmental level of children’s social behaviour’ (Power 2000: 362–375).

Elsewhere, Grossman et al. (2002) provide evidence from Germany that children tend to form stronger attachments to their parents if they play regularly with their fathers. The author concludes that fathers’ ‘play sensitivity’ gives an indication of child–parent attachment. Further evidence suggests that fathers’ engagement in rough-and-tumble play encourages competitive attitudes without violent or aggressive behaviour (Paquette et al. 2003). Parent–child play has also been linked with improvements in ‘conduct problems’ (Gardner et al. 2003) and social competency skills (Lindsey and Mize 2000).

Despite the growing body of evidence indicating the social benefits of adult–child play, everyday pressures have meant that finding time to play is challenging for some families (Gleave 2009). Lester and Russell (2008) argue that, under such strict time schedules when setting time aside for play is not always possible, one solution is to be more playful in the time families do spend together; incorporating this into their routine and lifestyle.

Clearly, play involving adult–child interaction has substantial benefits for children’s social skills, as well as having an important role in fostering positive relationships between adults and children. However, opportunities for children to play away from adult gaze are also vital for children. It has been observed that children play differently and less guardedly if they think they are not being observed.


Research on Play

Find below the references and further research studies for your information. You are not expected to look at these unless you are interested and feel compelled to research further. They may be useful as references if you are asked for more information by a parent.

Cognitive benefits of play

Bjorkland DF and Pellegrini AD. 2000. Child development and evolutionary psychology. Child Development 71: 1687-1708.

Buchsbaum D, Bridgers S, Skolnick Weisberg D, Gopnik A. 2012. The power of possibility: causal learning, counterfactual reasoning, and pretend play. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 367(1599):2202-12.

Carlson SM, White RE, Davis-Unger A. 2014. Evidence for a relation between executive function and pretense representation in preschool children. Cogn Dev. 29: 1-16. 

Dickinson, D.K., & Tabors, P.O. (Eds.) (2001). Beginning literacy with language: Young children learning at home and school. Baltimore: Paul Brookes Publishing. 

Fisher, Edward P. (1992). The impact of play on development: A meta-analysis. Play and Culture, 5(2), 159-181.

Gordon NS, Burke S, Akil H, Watson SJ, and Panskepp J. 2003. Socially-induced brain ‘fertilization’: play promotes brain derived neurotrophic factor transcription in the amygdala and dorsolateral frontal cortex in juvenile rats. Neuroscience Letters 341(1): 17-20.

Gosso Y., Otta E., Morais M. L. S., Ribeiro F. J. L., Bussab V. S. R. 2005. Play in hunter-gatherer society. In The nature of play: great apes and humans (eds Pellegrini A. D., Smith P. K., editors. ), pp. 213–253 New York, NY: Guilford.

Greenough WT and Black JE. Induction of brain structure by experience: substrates for cognitive development. In: Gunnar MR, Nelson CA, eds. Minnesota Symposia on Child Psychology: Developmental Neuroscience. Vol 24. Hillside, NJ: Lawrence A Erlbaum Associates; 1992:155-200.

Huber R, Tonini G, and Cirelli C. 2007. Exploratory behavior, cortical BDNF expression, and sleep homeostasis. Sleep 30(2):129-39.

Inzlicht M, Schmeichel BJ, and Macrae CN. 2014. Why self-control seems (but may not be) limited. Trends in Cognitive Sciences

Lewis P, Boucher J, Lupton L and Watson S. 2000. Relationships between symbolic play, functional play, verbal and non-verbal ability in young children. Int J Lang Commun Disord. 35(1):117-27.

Pelligrini AD and Holmes RM. 2006. The role of recess in primary school. In D.Singer, R. Golinkoff, & K. Hirsh-Pasek (Eds.), Play=learning: How play motivates and enhances children’s cognitive and socio-emotional growth. New York: Oxford University Press.

Pepler DJ and Ross HS. 1981. The effects of play on convergent and divergent problem solving. Child Development 52(4): 1202-1210.

Stevenson HW and Lee SY. 1990. Contexts of achievement: a study of American, Chinese, and Japanese children. Monogr Soc Res Child Dev. 55(1-2):1-123. 

Sutherland SL and Friedman O. 2013. Just pretending can be really learning: children use pretend play as a source for acquiring generic knowledge. Dev Psychol. 49(9):1660-8.

Sutherland SL and Friedman O. 2012. Preschoolers acquire general knowledge by sharing in pretense. Child Dev. 83(3):1064-71.

Walker CM and Gopnik A. 2013. Pretense and possibility--a theoretical proposal about the effects of pretend play on development: comment on Lillard et al. (2013). Psychol Bull. 139(1):40-4. 

Wolfgang, Charles H.; Stannard, Laura L.; & Jones, Ithel. (2001). Block play performance among preschoolers as a predictor of later school achievement in mathematics. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 15(2), 173-180.

Wyver SR and Spence SH. 1999. Play and divergent problem solving: Evidence supporting a reciprocal relationship. Early Education and Development, 10(4): 419 - 44.

Connection & attunement

Schore, A.N. (1994). Affect regulation and the origin of the self: The neurobiology of emotional development. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Schore, A.N. (2000c). The self-organization of the right brain and the neurobiology of emotional development. In M.D. Lewis & I. Granic (Eds.), Emotion, Development, and Self-Organization, (pp. 155-185). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Schore, A.N. The seventh annual John Bowlby memorial lecture. Minds in the making: attachment, the self-organizing brain, and developmentally-oriented psychoanalytic psychotherapy. British Journal of Psychotherapy,17, 299-328.

Damasio, A.R. (1998). Emotion in the perspective of an integrated nervous system. Brain Research Reviews, 26, 83-86.

Movement & body play

Forencich, Frank, (2001) Play as if Your Life Depended Upon It. ISBN: 0972335803

Ito, Maseo, (1993) Movement and Thought Identical control mechanisms by the cerebellum. Trends in the neurosciences 16, 448-450

Sheets- Johnstone, Maxine, (1999) The Primacy of Movement, Johns-Benjamin Vol. 14, Advances in Consciousness Research

Object play

Frank Wilson, (1999) The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture (Vintage)

Rick Stephens, Elane V. Scott, Workforce Readiness, the Boeing Corporation

Social play

Bekoff, M. (1978) Social Play, Structure, Function and the evolution of a cooperative social behavior. In: the development of behavior: Comparative and evolutionary aspects. pp367-383.

Allen, and Bekoff, M. (1994) Intentionality, Social Play, and Definition. Bio. Phil. V. 9. 63-74

Groos, K. (1901) The Play of Man. New York Appleton.

Huizinga, J. (1938) Homo Ludens: A study of the play element in culture. Boston, Beacon

Smith, P.K., Editor, (1984) Play in Animals and Humans, Basil Blackwell

Imaginative play

Bernadette Duffy, (2006), Supporting Creativity and Imagination in the Early Years, Oxford University Press.

Singer, Dorothy G. with Singer, Jerome L. The House of Make-Believe: Children’s Play and the Developing Imagination. 1990.

Singer, Jefferson A. and Salovey, Peter (eds.) At Play in the Fields of Consciousness: Essays in Honor of Jerome L. Singer. 1999.

Singer, Jerome L. Child’s World of Make-Believe: Experimental Studies of Imaginative Play. 1973.

Singer, Jerome L. and Switzer, Ellen. Mind Play: The Creative Uses of Fantasy. 1980.

Sutton-Smith, Brian. The Ambiguity of Play. Cambrige, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Sutton-Smith, Brian. Play and Learning. 1980.

Sutton-Smith, Brian. Toys as Culture. 1992.

Narrative play

Paley,, V.G.(1981) Wally’s Stories. Cambridge MA. Harvard University Press

Paley, V.G. (1992) You Can’t Say You Can’t Play. Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press

Peyton, Jeff (2006)

Bekoff,M and Byers J.,(Ed.s) (1998) Animal Play, Evolutionary, Comparative, and Ecological Perspectives,: Brown, S. Play as an Organizing Principle, Ch 12, p. 243-259 Cambridge Univ Prsll

Creative play

Gross, J.J., Mauss, I.B., Levenson, R.W., Wilhelm, F. H. The Tie That Binds? Coherence among Emotion, Experience, Behavior and Physiology. Emotion (2005) Vol. 2, 175-90

Leslie, A.M. (1987) Pretense and representation: The origins of theory of mind.² Psychological Review, 94, 412-426.

Stevens, V. Transparency to Transformation. (2006) In press,

Stevens, V. (2003, May). Metaphor and the poetics of the unconscious. Paper presented for Psychoanalysis and the Humanities Lectures, Cambridge University, UK.

All others

British Heart Foundation (2009) Couch Kids: The nation’s future. London: BHF

British Toy and Hobby Association (2011a) Active Play and Healthy Development. Available online at:

British Toy and Hobby Association (2011b) Play and Physical Health. Available online at:

Casey, T (2010) Inclusive Play: Practical strategies for children from birth to eight. London: Sage.

DeVries, R. (2006) Games with Rules. In D.P. Fromberg and D. Bergen (Eds) Play from Birth to Twelve, 2nd Ed. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

Dunn, K, Moore, M and Murray, P (2004) Developing Accessible Play Space: Final research report. London: Department for Communities and Local Government.

Elardo, R, Bradley, R and Caldwell, BM (1975) ‘The relation of infants’ home environments to mental test performance from 6 to 36 months: A longitudinal analysis’, Child Development, 46,71–76.

Elkind, D (2007) The Power of Play: How spontaneous, imaginative activities lead to happier, healthier children. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.

Gardner, F, Ward, S, Burton, J and Wilson, C (2003) ‘The role of mother-child joint play in the early development of children’s conduct problems: A longitudinal observational study’, Social Development, 12, 361–378 in BTHA (2011) Active Play and Healthy Development. Available online at:

Gill, T (2007) No Fear: Growing up in a risk society. London: Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.

Gleave, J (2008) Risk and Play: A literature review. London: Play England. Available online at:

Gleave, J (2009) Children’s Time to Play: A literature review. London: Play England. Available online at:

Grossmann, K Grossmann, KE, Fremmer-Bombik, E, Kindler, H, Scheuerer-Englisch, H and Zimmermann P (2002) ‘The uniqueness of the child-father attachment relationship: Fathers’ sensitive and challenging play as a pivotal variable in a 16-year longitudinal study’, Social Development, 11, 301–337, in BTHA (2011) Active Play and Healthy Development. Available online at:

Hirschland, D (2009) ‘Addressing social, emotional, and behavioural challenges through play’, Zero to Three, 30, 1, 12–17.

Hofferth, S L and Sandberg, J F (2000) Changes in American Children’s Time: 1981–1997. Available online from:–00.pdf 

Hope, G, Austin, R, Dismore, H, Hammond, S and Whyte, T (2007) ‘Wild woods or urban jungle: playing it safe or freedom to roam’, Education 3–13, 35, 4, 321–332.

Kirschner, S., and Tomasello, M. (2010). Joint music making promotes prosocial behavior in 4-year-old children. Evolution and Human Behavior, 31(5), 354364.

Lester, S and Russell, W (2008) Play for a Change: Play, Policy and Practice: A review of contemporary perspectives. London: Play England.

Lindon, J (2007) Understanding Children and Young People: Development from 5–18 years. London: Hodder Arnold.

Lindsey, E and Mize, J (2000) Parent-child physical and pretence play: Links to children’s social competence. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 46, 565–591, in BTHA (2011) Active Play and Healthy Development. Available online at:

Open University (2011) Play, learning and the brain. Available online at: 

Opie, I.A. and Opie, P (1959). The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren. Clarendon Press.

Paquette, D, Carbonneau, R, Dubeau, D, Bigres, M and Tremblay, R, E (2003) ‘Prevalence of father-child rough-and-tumble play and physical aggression in preschool children’, European Journal of Psychology of Education, 18, 171–189, in BTHA (2011) Active Play and Healthy Development. Available online at:

Pellegrini, A (2008) ‘The recess debate: A disjunction between educational policy and scientific research’, American Journal of Play, 1, 2, 181–191.

Pellegrini, A. D., and Gustafson, K. (2005). Boys’ and girls’ uses of objects for exploration, play and tools in early childhood. In A. D. Pellegrini, and P.K. Smith (Eds.).The nature of play: Great apes and humans.(pp. 113-135). New York: Guilford Press.

Pound, L. (2010) Playing music. In J. Moyles (ed). The Excellence of Play. Maidenhead, UK: Open University Press.

Power, T G (2000) Play and Exploration in Children and Animals, London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, in British Toy and Hobby Association (2011) Active Play and Healthy Development. Available online at:

Pretty, J, Angus, C, Bain, M, Barton, J, Gladwell, V, Hine, R, Pilgrim, S, Sandercock, G and Sellens, M (2009) Nature: Childhood, health and life pathways. Colchester: University of Essex.

Sandseter, EBH and Kennair, LEO (2011) ‘Children’s risky play from an evolutionary perspective: the anti-phobic effects of thrilling experiences’, Evolutionary Psychology, 9.2, 257–284.

Singer, J (1994) ‘Imaginative play and adaptive development’, in British Toy and Hobby Association (2011b) Play and Physical Health. Available online at:

Siraj-Blatchford, J. and Whitebread, D. (2003) Supporting Information and Communication Technology in the Early Years. Buckingham: Open University Press

Sylva,K., Bruner, J.S., and Genova, P. (1976). The role of play in the problem-solving of children 3-5 years old. In J. S. Bruner, A. Jolly, and K. Sylva (Eds.), Play: its role in development and evolution (pp. 55-67). Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Thompson, J (2000) ‘Playing with a purpose’, Community Practitioner, 73, 11, 843–844.

Trevarthen, C. (1999). Musicality and the intrinsic motive pulse: Evidence from human psychobiology and infant communication. In Rhythms, musial narrative, and the origins of human communication. Musicae Scientiae, Special Issue, 1999-2000 (pp. 157-213). Liege: European Society for the Cognitive Sciences of Music.

Van Schie, E.G.M., and Wiegman, O. (1997). Children and Videogames: Leisure Activities, Aggression, Social Integration, and School Performance. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 27 (13), 1175-1194.

The play science quiz

Please select true or false for each of these statements

  • Children don't need toys to play and develop
  • Children cannot play unless they are taught
  • Children are innately designed to play
  • Child-led play helps children to develop self-confidence
  • Research shows that video games have little benefit for children's development
  • Lots of praise for good play helps build self-esteem
  • Play produces a protein in rats (that humans share) that grows neurons
  • Rats tat develop in playful environments have thicker cerebral cortices
  • The two statements above are definitely true of humans as well as rats
  • Play is a biological state, like sleeping
  • Physical education and structured sports re the same as active play
  • Modern toys and games produce more advanced play that simple, nature-based toys
  • Imagination based play pervades all other types of play
  • Toddlers learn resilience from being allowed to take reasonable risks when playing
  • Toddlers only need play-mates of their own generation. Adults only interfere with children's play

Please explain why we talk about play in ToddlerCalm

Please highlight an area of this module that you feel you would want to research more thoroughly

ToddlerCalm Foundations of development

Introduction to Foundations™ of development

Introduction to a new concept

At ToddlerCalm we used to simply talk about child-led play, mention non-prescriptive toys briefly and demonstrate story sacks and treasure baskets with little coherent explanation, either to us as trainees/teachers or to parents. It was "this is a good way to play with your toddler and it will help them develop".

Instead we want to do better. We are developing a concept that encompasses the theoretical thinking and scientific knowledge about how a combination of different types of play, and the parenting that supports play, can optimally shape toddlers' brains. Essentially we want to inform parents about how they can support their child in developing their brain in the best way possible, according to the latest neuroscience and play research.

The "foundations of development" strategy gives parents the understanding about how they can work with their toddler to allow their development to be optimum. The first half of this strategy helps parents to understand what they can do to allow play to be as helpful to brain development as possible. In the second half of the strategy we highlight all the different types of play that support holistic brain development. Here is that strategy:

Freedom and independence


Unconditional commentary

Non prescriptive stimulus

Directed by toddler


Action play

Two-gether play

Imaginative play

Object play

Narrative play

Social play

This section will take you through each of these individually but there will be a specific way to present this to parents that will help to contextualise the concept and support understanding it as one holistic practice. This will be presented to you using a video in the "Structures of ToddlerCalm" module.

Freedom and independence

Freedom and independence

Toddlers will develop better brain connections when they are free to play in their own way, independently. 

Freedom of choice

Ensure that children are allowed to choose what they play with and when. Suggestions such as "you played with that all day yesterday, why don't you play with this instead" may be counter productive. Well meaning parents are trying to vary their child's experience but may inadvertently be undermining a child's natural ability to understand what they are trying to develop. They may be part way through working out a problem, figuring out a particular schema, or working through a difficult emotion.

Young children tend to repeat the same activity because they need to rehearse and practice  in order to master it and to feel confident in their abilities. If adults do not respect this need for repetition, a child will likely become frustrated, feel incompetent and this can lead to decreased self-esteem and a lack of confidence in their own abilities. Following a child’s pace and sticking with their chosen activity for the length of time they choose, will help the child develop concentration and attention skills - key skills for the years ahead. 

Freedom to be competent

“Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed.” – Maria Montessori.

Give them opportunities to do things for themselves. Although we know that toddlers cannot be treated as mini adults who can do all things for themselves, they are not helpless either. They can, and absolutely want to, do things independently. IF they are constantly "helped", it will make them lazy, unable to see the point of acting themselves and will make them feel that they are not trusted. 

If parents understand their toddlers well, they can feel confident in their toddler's competence in tasks, allowing them to complete them without assistance. In addition, to allow a toddler to push their boundaries of competence, parents can simplify elements of a task/game to allow the toddler to grow their confidence. It is important that parents are very knowledgable about their toddler's level of competence so that they can identify the correct amount of assistance to give.

Freedom of movement

Toddlers need to feel that they have the space and freedom to move in and explore their environment. This need to explore is innate and allowing it to flourish, allows them to understand how to learn about their world as it gets bigger through their own independence. It gives them the tools to venture out from the "safe base" parents have created through secure attachment. 

The idea that parents can keep in their minds is maximum freedom to explore whilst keeping a toddler safe. Yes we need to restrict to a certain extent to ensure safety but this can be minimised as far as possible and where restrictions are put in place, parents can ensure they provide certain times when this restriction is lifted under adult supervision.

Parents might particularly consider that toddlers can have access to their own things whether this is in their room or communal spaces:

  • Plates, bowls and cups in a  low cupboard
  • Steps for using sinks, toilets etc
  • Low drawers or cubby holes for their clothes/toys/activities
  • Keep furniture in their room at an accessible level (low bed, small table and chairs)



Under the heading of observation it is important to note that there are three factors: gently observing the toddler to learn and understand, letting the toddler observe our play (modelling) and creating an observation void. 

Observe your toddler to learn

This is a gentle, casual activity. This is not a suggestion that you need to watch your toddler like a hawk or interrupt their play by being too involved or present all the time. It certainly isn't meant as the same activity as many formal settings do in "checking" children's development against "norms". This isn't that - here is what it is:

When your toddler is playing gently observe them simply to learn form them and understand them better. remember as parents we strive to be the experts but our teachers are always our toddlers. You will learn much from their play, gaining an insight into their struggles, their capabilities, their interests and their development. This will assist every aspect of your parenting and your ability to cope with other aspects of their lives (sleep, eating and behaviour). It will also help you to play with them - an important tool.

Allow your toddler to observe you in play

The most prominent form of learning for all mammals is known as "modelling". This simply means that we learn by watching others - "Monkey see, monkey do". Your toddler watches you all the time and is constantly learning how to be a person by seeing your behaviour. Whilst this is a terrifying thought for all parents, it also presents an easy way for parents to "teach" their toddlers many different skills and behaviours. For example, if you want a toddler to say sorry, don't tell them to when they don't mean it (or understand what the hell it means anyway), just do it. Say sorry to them, say sorry to your partner, friend or other relative when you make a mistake, or even say sorry for them to other when they make a mistake.

In terms of play, let your toddler see you playing and remember if you are playing with them, what you are doing is more important than what you say.

Create an observation void

Just as it is important to observe your toddler when it's appropriate, in order for them to play in the most unguarded and free way (an important aspect of development) they must sometimes be allowed to play while they feel that no one is watching them.

Unconditional commentary

Unconditional commentary

Adults often structure a child’s play by adding commands, rules or instructions, e.g. “put the blocks on top of each other like this”, “this piece of the puzzle goes this way up”, “it’s not your turn, we must take turns in this game”. Putting an emphasis on a ‘best ‘or ‘correct’ way to play makes the experience unrewarding for a child and conversely means it’s less likely a child will develop skills through play.

Equally, asking toddlers continual questions during their play is likely to make play less enjoyable and more likely to make a toddler feel less competent  and confident in their abilities and development. Also, a toddler either knows the answer to your question, in which case they may feel that you think they are not as knowledgable as they are, or they don't know the answer, in which case they may become despondent and are not learning anything through the question.

Furthermore, parents often feel the need to offer lots of praise to toddlers who are playing "nicely" or who achieve things that they haven't before (e.g. climb something for the first time, manage to get the shapes in the "correct" hole). As we have learned in the neuropsychology module, praise can actually be less than helpful in encouraging our toddlers and using binary language can make our toddlers feel unsuccessful or have low self-esteem in the future. Don't worry, there is something we can do that will help our toddlers to develop.

Using commentary

Commentary is what a sports commentator does on the radio; they describe what they see without making value judgements or shaping what happens with conditions. So with a child you could say “I see you are putting the blocks on top of each other, blue is on the bottom, then red. Crash! The blocks have been knocked over”. It is more helpful to your child's development to offer them commentary on their play without any conditions or judgements because it  will make a toddler feel that you're interested in their play, and will reinforce the language around their explorations and actions.

Reframing comments like "Ooh what colour is that brick?" to "You have chosen the green brick" may seem like you aren't pushing your toddler to identify objects, but in reality you are reinforcing their knowledge and giving them confidence in their achievement.

Non-prescriptive stimulus

Non-prescriptive stimulus


Many parents feel (and have been encouraged to feel by big business) that in order to optimise development, babies and toddlers need toys that are designed for "educational" purposes, particularly things with lots of functions, bright lights or specific patterns to them. However, this is actually the opposite of what play experts have found. 

Fancy or flashy toys that do all the work for the child and just leave them watching and being amused for a short period of time actually do very little to create or strengthen connections in the brain. Babies and toddlers actually learn more and respond better when they are exploring everyday objects and particularly those made of natural materials (rather than plastic). 

Toys that encourage children do something with their hands, to drop a ball in a box, or to stack rings to accomplish a task can entertain them for long periods of time as they repeat the activity over and over, or find new ways to interact with the object.

Equally, though our toddlers love receiving toys that represent a favourite character from a TV series or movie or even a book, these toys are prescriptive - only presenting the brain with the possibility of the toy being one character, or being able to play one type of game (super heroes for instance). If a toddler is given more generic items to play with (for instance wooden peg people) they are able to create any character they choose at any given time whether it's a space ranger, super hero, fairy, cowboy, princess, teacher...

A key thing to remember here is balance. Toddlers who want a Buzz Lightyear because they love him, can absolutely be allowed to do so without any repercussions to their development. However it is important that parents also offer them non-prescriptive characters which allow them to use their brains to create and imagine.

Bearing in mind this balance, parents should never be made to feel that any toys are wrong or bad. If they already have many plastic toys that light up, we can encourage them to add everyday objects or specifically made non-prescriptive, natural toys. We are lucky enough that there are many great non-prescriptive toys available now and we can provide parents with the tools to find the best way for them.


When considering how much we prescribe in our toddlers lives, we can also consider the space that we provide for them. Many parents are tempted to provide their child with a wonderfully creative, specifically designed bedroom (under the sea for instance). Whilst this may look lovely, it prescribes a certain environment for them, making them less likely to be creative with their space or with the games they play within in. Instead parents can leave bedrooms or play spaces neutral whilst providing props and equipment that can be used in a variety of ways to create different imaginative environments (E.g. big blue sheet for water, poles and mats to make dens etc).

Directed by toddler

Directed by toddler

Research shows that children benefit from play the most when they are free to choose and direct their own play. The human brain has an amazing ability to strive for further development in the early years and will guide a child to varied play that develops the right bits at the right time. It will also guide them to persevere with one type of play for a while, if that is the right method of development at that time for that child.

As a parent it can be surprisingly difficult to let your child take the lead. It is easy to make suggestions, make corrections or ask questions, all of which unwittingly interfere with your child’s play. We think we are helping by trying to vary their play artificially or by trying to push their development on further than they are ready for. We mean well but we are actually preventing the brain from connecting itself in the most optimum way.

If we stand back, provide good opportunities, freedom and non-prescriptive stimulus, toddlers will guide their own development.

Remember also from CRUCIAL, that children need to have some control in their lives and thrive when they are able to predict what is coming next. When a toddler has control over their own play choices, they feel more in control of their lives and can predict more easily how their play-time will go.

It isn't quite as simple as providing good toys and just letting them be. We must ensure that when we play with our toddlers, we offer them the same opportunities. This can be very difficult for parents as we are used to being in control and taking the lead. For example, when a toddler is having story-time (narrative play), parents often like to take control by choosing the story, or even more commonly making rules such as "we only read the once and then choose a different book". This is because parents prefer some stories to others and find repetition tedious. However, toddlers have a need to be in control of their play (even narrative play) and find repetition rewarding. This is because it is developmentally necessary to strengthen those brain connections.

Playing with your toddler

Toddlers love it when their parent plays with them. This is because we are the people that they are most connected to and they want desperately to share their world (mostly made up of play) with us. This is a massive privilege and also can be quite boring. Some people think it's mean to even think playing with their child is boring, and it isn't always, but we need to be honest and acknowledge that it can be. That doesn't mean we shouldn't do it anyway.

There is so much that our toddlers will gain from us playing with them that it would be a missed opportunity for their development if we didn't't do it. The key is though to ensure that when you play with your toddler, you give them your full attention and let them direct you. You must play their game. 

At ToddlerCalm we encourage parents to consider adding toddler-directed play into their daily lives:

ToddlerCalm toddler-directed play

  • Set aside 10 minutes protected time each day to play with your toddler (or each of your children if you have more than one). Trust me, ten minutes will be enough for you at first.
  • Do not answer your phone or allow yourself to be distracted during this time. 
  • Doing it at a similar time each day e.g. after breakfast or before bedtime routine can allow your toddler to predict it more. The more your toddler can predict activities, the more they feel in control of their world (and therefore the less likely to try to take control in other ways). 
  • Let your toddler know that you are there to play with them.
  • Have a pre-agreed ending to the play. Many parents find setting a timer on their mobile phone works well. Explain “When the timer goes off it will mean it is time for us to stop playing”. A 3 year old can be given some control over setting the timer, “Daddy can play with you for however many minutes you want, up to 10, What number would you like to choose?” A 3 year old might then press ‘start’ on the timer. 
  • Use ‘unconditional commentary’ to describe what your child is doing.
  • Always let your toddler direct the play
  • Your child may be upset when the play session finishes. This is normal. Be compassionate but keep your limit in place. To make the end of the session predictable, remind your toddler before the end of the session if you can “our play will be finishing in 1 minute”. When the timer goes, thank your child, tell them what you have enjoyed about playing together and that you are looking forward to playing together tomorrow.

This toddler-directed playtime will probably develop its own name in your household.  Examples from people we have worked with include: “the numbers game” (due to a timer being set for a number of minutes) and another “daddy play me time”. 

Parents are usually surprised at how difficult this is at first. It is very common for adults to feel uncomfortable about engaging in child-led play - they may feel silly, have no experience of adults playing with them as a child, get bored or frustrated, particularly with a child’s like of repetition or may worry that a child’s play is silly or unhealthy (e.g. role playing). It helps to understand why child led play is so valuable. 

If an adult follows a child’s rules and ideas, they are modelling listening, cooperation and compliance to their child. They are also encouraging independent thinking and creativity. Remember that our children will model the ways we behave more than the things we say so if we want our children to develop the above skills, modelling them is our most effective tool. Here are some more reasons why letting our toddlers direct us in play is a great parenting tool:

Toddler-directed play is great because it:

  • Helps to develop a child’s self-confidence 
  • Develops trust in carers (as adults are not intruding into or putting controls onto their play) 
  • Helps develop thinking and problem solving skills 
  • Helps develop co-ordination of  hand and body movements 
  • Helps child to listen to sounds more effectively (a precursor for speech) 
  • Builds concentration, attention and listening skills
  • Helps the child to learn to think independently
  • Helps the child to learn to "work" co-operatively alongside others

Action play

Action play

Children need play that uses their whole body. It is something all animals do and it is necessary for our wellbeing. Running, jumping, dancing and climbing are all examples.

Motor play provides critical opportunities for children to develop both individual gross and fine muscle strength and overall integration of muscles, nerves, and brain functions. Recent research has confirmed the critical link between stimulating physical activity and brain development across many functions including being able to simultaneously use both sides of the brain.

Recommended items for this kind of play:


The best possible place for a toddler to use their body and move freely is out in nature. Get yourself into the woods, to the beach or exploring hills. Toddlers will find ways to run, jump, climb and balance in nature.

Soft-play places (bad weather)

If the weather is terrible, soft play places (though a little hard on the senses sometimes) can be a great opportunity for children to use their bodies to play in variety of ways.

Generic outdoor playgrounds

Outdoor playgrounds are usually a good way for children to use their bodies to play, providing varied opportunities to move. The best kind are not designed to be something specific (plate ship.castle) so that the child can change the game and use their imagination too.

Generic play equipment

You do not have to leave your home and garden to encourage action play. Using simple, generic equipment, you can encourage a child to use their body to play, moving is a variety of ways.

Together play

Together play

This is a term we use at ToddlerCalm to describe what scientists and researchers have called "attuned" play. This is the type of play where it all starts; infant psychologists and neuroscientists call this "serve and return", where close communication and reciprocity happens between caregiver and infant. It starts with smiling and sing song voices and later, with a toddler, becomes games of peek-a-boo, funny faces, blowing on tummies and nursery rhymes on laps.

During this time parents can vary being led and leading in a kind of game of ping pong. This not only stimulates the brain in multiple ways, it teaches the toddler about reciprocity and many other interpersonal skills. The key factor in this type of play is the toddler playing closely with the parent or care-giver. Research shows that toddlers continue to benefit from playing with their caregivers even more than playing on their own or with friends. It develops all the parts of the brain through essential modelling and promotes continued secure attachment.

Rhymes, songs and lap games

Learning some simple games, rhymes and songs is a good starting point for this type of play. Just like in all relationships, two people find their own way to enjoy each other at close contact. 

Just two people - playing

The wonderful thing is that you need nothing but each other for this type of play and it is the most rewarding for your toddler of all of them. Just play together, responding to each other with joy.

Imaginative play

Imaginative play

Here are two examples of clearly defined imaginative play. Imaginative play also pervades all the other types of play providing children are allowed the necessary freedom (coming up with new construction ideas, pretending you are climbing a mountain when walking up a hill).

Creative play

Creativity is expressing one’s own idea, trying new things, and experimenting with changing materials. The best way to develop creativity is to provide a variety of materials, and give children time to create on their own. Another way to support children’s creativity is to simply observe while they work, to provide additional supplies when needed, and to allow the child to decide when the work is complete.

Role play

Role-play helps children experience someone else’s feelings which helps them to learn to be aware of sensitive to others emotions. It also helps toddlers to deal with things they have seen by acting them out. For instance, a child may see something about violence in the media. it is natural for this child to act out the scenario or one like through play (using their fingers as guns and pretending to shoot their friends or toys), helping them to work though their understanding of the situation and their emotions around it.

Using fantastical ideas during play (fairies, trolls, super-powers) helps children to think symbolically and helps them develop their sense of what is real and what is not. Studies have revealed a link between symbolic and pretend play with the development of language skills.

Recommended items for this type of play

Generic arts and crafts bits

Having a whole load of arts and crafts stuff is a great way to stimulate creative play. Paints, pipe cleaners, felt, ribbons, sequins, paper etc etc. Modelling clay is also popular with toddlers. Remember to keep the stimulus non-prescriptive.

Scenery and costumes props

Instead of buying many specific costumes (e.g. each super-hero) or scenery set-ups (e.g. shop, kitchen) for your toddler, get a jumble of random props and costume bits and let them create their own scenes and characters.

Object play

Object play

As we can see from studying play and development, every theorist and researcher agrees that object play is vitally important to a child's development. Manipulating all kinds of different objects and using them in creative ways will develop into problem solving skills, fine motor skills, critical thinking, logic and creativity (amongst others). At ToddlerCalm we recommend these two main forms of object play as helpful and easy to do:

Heuristic play

Heuristic is basically a term that describes everyday objects in play, particularly those made of natural materials. Using natural objects  helps children to discover their world through their senses. The most commonly understood form of heuristic play is the use of treasure baskets, in which a basket contain a mix of natural and everyday items, all included with the child’s sensory experience in mind. Parents can fill them themselves or involve the child in finding the treasure to go in the treasure basket (e.g. finding pine cones on a walk in the woods). Treasure baskets are best when items are changed regularly so that toddlers' experiences vary.

Another form of heuristic play is in offering a child one type of particular object in a way that allows them to use it in a  varied way. For example: you could offer them a large box of varied buttons and give them the opportunity to use them in a variety of ways such as threading, stacking, sorting, putting them in water, painting with them...

This second type of heuristic play is often more fun if it is done with small groups of children so that they can observe each other's play.

Constructive play

 Constructive play allows children to experiment with objects, find out combinations that work and don’t work, and learn basic knowledge about stacking, building, drawing, making music and constructing. This overlaps somewhat between object play and creative play that is part of imaginative play. It also gives children a sense of accomplishment and empowers them with control of their environment. Children who are comfortable manipulating objects and materials also become good at manipulating words, ideas and concepts. Recent research suggests that playing with blocks contributes to language development.

Recommended items for this type of play:

Treasure baskets

A treasure basket might contain: a natural sea sponge, pastry brush, spatula, rolling pin, whisk, nail brush, paintbrush, large feather, large shell, pinecone, bell (cat/rabbit balls containing a bell are great!), silky fabric, shiny fabric, tinfoil, old keys, an old purse or wallet.... and anything else you may find in the house and in nature.

Manipulation toys (younger)

Oddly shaped objects made of natural materials are good for babies to start understanding objects and how they can manipulate them and the world around them. These continue to be fun for younger toddlers too.

Stacking toys

These come in lots of shapes and sizes these days; colourful or plain wooden bricks in differing shapes are great but there are also many other types of stacking that are fantastic for inspiring little minds: take a look at Grimms rainbow and their other products for wonderful examples of non-prescriptive object and small world play. There are similar cheaper products.

Wooden railways

You may think these are a little prescriptive, and to some extent they are more than some other things. However the great thing about these is toddlers rarely ever build the same thing twice if they are given a varied stash. They needn't be too expensive these days either with supermarkets and Ikea offering brio compatible railways.

Duplo and lego bricks

Although very much a man-made material product, duplo and lego bricks are fantastic toys for allowing children to create freely. We highly recommend their boxes of generic bricks so that your toddler doesn't feel they have to create the intended product. Lego bricks aren't suitable for under 3s. Duplo is fine for all.

Lacing toys

Again, lacing blocks may seem more prescriptive, having one purpose. However, because children can create different things each time, and get to practice varied forms of manipulation, these are developmentally beneficial. As they get older, you can move to the more varied option of beads.

Musical toys

A unique type of object. Toddlers find making noise in many different ways a highly stimulating way of manipulating objects and the world around them.

Sand/water play

This may not seem like object play but manipulating many different objects using sand and water develops the brain through understanding of the world around objects in a more complex way than when simply surrounding objects with air.

Narrative play

Narrative play

In adulthood we tell ourselves stories to make sense of the world and our interactions. Think about a time recently when you argued with someone. Did you find yourself retelling the story in your mind later but imagining what you could have said? That is your brain learning and making sense of that social interaction, through narrative play. Children do this through their own play, if given the right opportunities, helping them to learn and cope with new and challenging emotions.

Story sacks

Sharing story sacks with children offers a multi sensory approach to the reading process. Children work with parents to learn how we can make sense of stories (whether real or not) with objects and with our parents.

Small world toys

Children often use small world toys to act out scenarios they are trying to understand or to create fantastical worlds. The more generic the small world toys are (whilst representing "people" with some is useful), the more adaptable the toy is and the more developing your toddler can do.


Using puppets is common in play therapy as it provides children with an outlet for their emotions. Whilst it can be hard to talk about our emotions (because that requires theory of mind), children subconsciously project their feelings into surrogates. That is why you see them act out arguments they may have heard.

Social play

Social play

Social play pervades many of the other types of play that we have mentioned. Children often play with other children with objects, when role playing and when running and jumping etc. However, those types of play can achieve good fun and development when done solitarily as well. The following types of play, place the social side of the play as the developmental factor.

Social play involves children cooperating together to make something fun and challenging. Typical examples of this are board games or well-known playground games such as "What's the time Mr Wolf". these kinds of games requires rules to be set down and agreed upon (either preset by the nature of the game or agreed by the children).

In an ideal situation, children learn to cooperate, take turns, follow rules and both lead and be compliant at different moments. All the relevant social skills for teamwork for the future. However, this is very hard for children to do, and so these types of play are often best observed by parents especially with young children, and avoided at moments when our toddler is not feeling contained enough to develop their skills. For this reason, this type of play works best when the children who take part choose it themselves, not when parents suggest it. Children often choose this type of play because they liek some structure in their lives, they see others doing similar things and they innately want to practice those skills. 

Recommended for this type of play:

Board games

Having a wide range of "board" games both modern and traditional in an accessible place means children can choose a more structured game if they feel inclined to this type of development. 

Games with rules

Playing "it", stuck in the mud, What's the time Mr Wolf and social skipping games are some of the many many favourite ways that children learn social skills. 

The foundations quiz

Please select true or false for each of these statements

  • Toddlers are happier if they can access their things independently
  • Freedom means allowing your child to do whatever they want whenever they want
  • Sometimes toddlers need to play without any observation (safely)
  • Parents should perform developmental observations on their toddlers
  • Praising your child is harmful
  • Using unconditional language to comment on play can help children develop
  • Parents help to develop their toddlers when they trust them to direct their own play
  • Each type of play must happen individually so your toddler can develop different skills
  • Providing opportunities for all types of play will help your toddler develop holistically

Select all the things that are NOT included in child-led play

  • Offering suggestions
  • Assisting your child
  • Allowing your child to instruct you
  • Saying what you see
  • Asking your child educational questions about their game
  • Reminding your child how to play appropriately
  • Restricted time frames
  • Take part in imaginative play

Please describe what information you feel you would want to give parents after they have attended your session on ToddlerCalm Foundations