The Importance of Play in Reaching Developmental Milestones

October 1st, 2018
Mary McCollum - High Hopes Dubai

Mary McCollum

OTD, OTR/L, Doctor of Occupational Therapy

The Importance of Play in Reaching Developmental Milestones - High Hopes Dubai

What is play?

Play is engagement in an activity that is enjoyable. Play can look very different for each individual as we all have different preferences and abilities. Play can be boisterous or contemplative, it can occur alone or with others, and it provides opportunity for exploration that allows children to grow and develop.

What does play have to do with development?

Childhood is a time of growing, learning, and engaging in play. Through play children interact with and learn about their environment. Play facilitates development and maturation of age-appropriate skills in children, such as: motor coordination, strength, social skills, communication, self-confidence, problem solving, and the ability to control their emotions and behaviors.

When children engage in play they learn about their bodies and how to coordinate their movements. Babies begin to develop awareness of their body by grasping their hands together and grabbing toes. Tummy time and other positional play activities in early childhood facilitate strengthening of muscles. Increased muscle strength, body awareness, and coordination are foundational building blocks for development that help children thrive and reach developmental milestones.

Children are motivated to do increasingly challenging movements during play such as rolling to reach a toy or crawling after a ball; his or her ability to complete more complex movements can be tracked as developmental milestones. Some examples of developmental milestones include: smiling, rolling, making sounds, reaching, waving, sitting up, crawling, and walking. While there are predictable patterns of development every child’s unique capability as well as intrinsic and extrinsic factors allow for variability to when milestones occur.

Play helps develop an awareness of our surroundings and concepts of our world. As children grow, play is how we develop friendships and learn about social interactions. Play is a way to engage in activities that help relieve stress and facilitate a positive self-image. Reciprocal play with peers teaches children about sharing. Building with blocks and legos as well as creating arts and crafts help children gain skills and confidence as they challenge themselves and solve problems.

How can I help my child play?

Every child’s strengths and challenges are different, so activities that we define as play can be as unique as our children are. The most important part of play is to have fun. Below are some ideas to remember when facilitating play with your child:

  • Arrange a time and a safe place so they can play and explore.
  • Encourage exploration of toys and your child’s environment. One way to do this is to take the child’s lead during play and ask questions such as: Where did that ball roll? What does this teddy bear feel like? What happens when you push on that block tower?
  • Reading to them as well as letting them read or tell stories.
  • Play needs to be fun and engaging. Learn what your child’s likes and dislikes are as well as their strengths. Find play activities and games that they are good at and enjoy.
  • Remember when choosing toys that you want to select an activity at the appropriate developmental level for your child’s skills. See below for some tips.
  • Encourage tactile and messy play-this can mean splashing in water, squishing playdough, and painting with their fingers. When children use their hands to engage in messy play, they are developing their tactile system. This is valuable as we use our sense of touch to explore our environment every day. Having a developed tactile system allows your child reach into their toy chest and find their favorite doll or action figure without looking.
  • Encourage movement through swinging, rolling, crawling, scooting, and walking. Though movement and exploration children learn about their world and how they can interact with it.

What toys will my child benefit from?

Every child has different preferences, developmental needs, as well as strengths and challenges. Some companies put age ranges on their toys to help guide families to age appropriate toys. These age ranges are helpful but remember every child is different and develops differently so just because the box say your child’s age range, does not mean it’s the right toy for him or her. You want your child to be successful at engaging and playing with the toy. In occupational therapy we call this the ‘just right’ challenge–something that encourages learning but is not too difficult.

Consider if the toy can be used or played with in different ways such as blocks that can be stacked, knocked over, used to build a house, or a train. Finding toys that have many different ways to play with them helps children be successful and creative. It may also be helpful to ask: Is the toy easy to move and can it be played with in more than one position? If the toy can be moved, then play can happen in different locations. If it can be used during tummy time, sitting and in standing then it will encourage a variety of different developmental postures.

Remembering that child’s developmental age is more important than his or her date of birth can help parents find toys that will help their child mature and grow. While many of the below listed toys are appropriate across the life span here is a general guide to toys and games based broadly on age:

  • Infants: mirrors, interactive games (ex. Peek-a-boo, singing, books), rattles, mobiles
  • Toddlers: blocks, stacking rings, large crayons, balls, books, sand and water toys, large beads, movement games, musical toys
  • School-Aged: Building sets, bicycles, crafts, books, messy play activities
  • Adolescents: Athletic equipment, books, crafts, puzzles, analytical games

Play is a child’s occupation; the effort that they invest in play helps them to further develop and grow. When children have challenges expressing age appropriate play skills, this can indicate a need for further assessment. If you have concerns regarding your child’s play skills and development, it is always a good idea to talk to your pediatrician.

Occupational therapy (OT) is a skilled allied health profession that works with children of all ages to ensure that they are able to participate in age appropriate every day activities that they need and want to do- their occupations. Occupational therapists modify and adapt activities—including play-based activities–so that children of all ability levels can successfully engage and participate in play in order to grow and develop. At High Hopes, OT is among the therapies we offer to support children and their families. We are always happy to assist families in ensuring their children are meeting their milestones and developing their independence.


American Occupational Therapy Association. (2011). Building play skills for healthy children and families. Retrieved from Files/Practice/Children/Browse/Play/Building%20 Play%20Skills%20Tip%20Sheet%20Final.pdf
American Occupational Therapy Association. (2012). Learning though play. Retrieved from
Case-Smith, J. O’Brien, J. C. (2010). Occupational therapy for children (6th Ed.). St. Louis, MO: Mosby/Elsevier.
Ginsburg, K. R., Committee on Communications, & Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health. (2007). The importance of play in promoting healthy child development and maintaining strong parent-child bonds. American Academy of Pediatrics, 119(1).