Six Key Elements of Meaningful Play

by | Mar 17, 2016 | Developmental Play, preschool, toddler

Benefits of Play

Play has positive affect on development of the whole child, including cognitive, social, physical, and emotional skills. Although many of play’s amazing benefits are known, children today are spending less and less time playing (children today spend 8 hours less a week playing than children did 20 years ago).

Teachers and parents should seek to actively protect and encourage playtime for children. Knowing key elements of play can help you better foster quality play. 

A Range of Play

Play is not all or nothing–some play experiences are more ‘playful’ than others. When researchers are observing and evaluating play, they typically define play on a continuum of several key characteristics. Using these characteristics, the playfulness of a child’s play can be described from 0-100%. Of course, as parents and teachers, we aren’t often concerned about the quantified amount of play a child is involved in; But knowing these key  elements of play can help us assess the quality of the experience (ex: Is this app/video/toy/situation really providing quality playtime for my child?) and gives us ideas on how to enrich and further engage our child during the play experience. The next time you are watching children play, think about these elements as you observe:

Play is Pleasurable

First and foremost, play is fun. In fact, if play is not fun it is considered work, which is the opposite of play. You can encourage enjoyable play by offering materials related to your child’s interests (ex: if you child loves animals, have some stuffed animals available. If you child loves building things, have building materials accessible, etc.). If your child becomes stressed or frustrated when playing, identify the cause and help your child work through this obstacle. Make sure fun is a top priority when you consider your child’s play!

Play is Intrinsically Motivated

A child’s desire to play stems from their need to understand the world. The urge to play is so strong that children can be found playing in even the most uninviting circumstances. In order for play to be meaningful and authentic, it is important that the child has the desire to be playing in the first place. When a child is intrinsically motivated to play, the play results in genuine exploration. While your child may sometimes need guidance to play (ex: “How about you go outside and play instead of watching TV?”), seek to create situations where your child is more inclined to initiate and perpetuate the play themselves.

Play is Process Oriented

Play is more focused on the process of the activity, not the result of the activity. It is the experience of play that inspires development of the whole child. The prize of play is not our child learning how to build the best fort or become an award-winning actor, it is the skills developed through the course of attempting fort building or acting. This is a key element for adults to accept and actively remember, especially when playing with children.

Play is Freely Chosen

Play being intrinsically motivated and freely chosen go hand in hand. Often, if play is freely chosen there is more intrinsic motivation at work. In order to encourage freely chosen play, have a variety of open-ended materials available for your child to interact with. Open-ended materials are materials that can be used in a variety of ways and encourage creativity. For example, when a child could play with a block in many ways, including pretending it is a spaceship. A toy spaceship, however, is usually only played with as a spaceship. Other open-ended play materials could be cardboard (boxes, tubes, etc.), tunnels, balls, and craft materials (ribbon, paper, sticks, etc.).

Play is Actively Engaged

Players should be physically and/or mentally involved in the experience. In order to encourage active engagement, minimize unnecessary distractions while your child is playing. Having the TV on, having too many toys available, and interrupting your child’s play are all typical distractions that can be possible to avoid.

Play is Non-Literal

Pretend is a cornerstone of play. Pretend transforms any activity from boring to inspiring. Pretend play is captivating and often contagious. One of the best ways to encourage pretend play for your child is to pretend with them! When adults engage in pretend play it communicates to your child that pretend play is good and models imaginative thinking. Open ended materials and a variety of everyday objects can also foster pretend play.

Learn More

Play gives us a look inside to what’s going on as your child grows and develops in every area – physically, intellectually, socially and emotionally. This course teaches you all about it – great for parents and especially for those who take care of your child.


The Power of Play by Dr. Rachel E. White

Meet Ann

I'm a child development specialist, parent coach and teacher trainer. I've cared for countless babies in child development programs, plus 3 kids, 3 grand babies and 5 foster babies! I LOVE babies and would come hold yours if I could. ❤️

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