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Play Helps Your Child Learn and Grow

Unstructured Play Time and Healthy Brain Development

Using play to help your child reach optimal development.

Play Therapist in Dallas, TX- HeadFirst Counseling

Children are born with an innate desire to expand and explore their environment. Play is a child’s natural language and is medium for which the child assimilates new information from the environment to his or her knowledge of how the world works. Children use play to explore, learn, develop skills, gain insight, and make sense of their experiences.

Unstructured play time helps boost a child’s creativity and optimizes their brain for healthy development. Unstructured play is the most developmentally appropriate way for children to learn about relationships (within themselves and between others), feed their curiosity, develop coping skills, and gain emotional and social regulation. Unstructured play time gives children the opportunity to choose the toys and activities they are needing in the moment, and direct their own play according to their own curiosity and desire to explore.

There are many ways in which unstructured play time is beneficial for a child’s optimal growth and development. Children use play to learn how to manipulate objects and discover new ways of accomplishing tasks. Through play, children develop coping skills, increase emotional regulation and the ability to self soothe, increase frustration tolerance, and gain insight about the environment. Children also use play as a way to communicate their inner world, and are able to express their wishes, desires, emotions, experiences, and wishes through their play. By watching a child play, we can learn more about their inner world and the way they are responding and reacting to their environment. While some children may have advanced language skills, they are still gaining maturity in the use of language and are not able to fully express themselves through words. Communicating with children through their play is a way for adults to understand the child on a deeper level.

By engaging in unstructured play time, children are able to get their needs met in a developmentally appropriate manner. They use play in a way to spontaneously address whatever experience arises within themselves, and are able to gain insight and resolution through the use of manipulating objects and symbols during play. A child that is developing greater fine motor coordination and grasping strength may gravitate towards smaller objects to test out his new abilities. An older child struggling with sharing may use the toys to act out a scenario to release his frustration over being forced to share with others. Children use play to work through rigid or chaotic ways of thinking and are able, through play, to develop more fluid and flexible ways of engaging with others and with themselves.

When children are constantly given directions, prompts, and encouraged to play with certain items or engage in specific play sequences, they are no longer directing their own play. They are no longer listening to and exploring their inner world (and their wants and wishes in that world), as they are instead accommodating others and playing out sequences prompted by others. While children are able to learn a great deal through parental prompts and suggestions, it is important that they are also allowed unstructured play time to develop internal navigation and control to meet their needs.

It’s easy to get caught up in wanting to provide positive experiences for children by taking over their play time with planned activities. Play dates, sporting activities, and educational activities are all wonderful for a child’s development- as long as they are supplemented with unstructured play time. Children can get over stimulated and overwhelmed when their day becomes too full and they are not able to listen to internal cues of when to stop.

Children develop in sequential stages, and each stage of development must be met first before they are able to move on to the next stage. Children must first learn physical regulation before they can learn to develop social or emotional regulation. This means that children must first be given the opportunity to listen to their own needs and control their physical bodies before they are expected to get along with others or control their emotions. Children move sequentially through developmental stages through the use of unstructured play time. In this play time, they are linking different parts of their brain together and developing greater neural integration. This integration leads to the ability to control their physical body (motor development, bowel movements, impulses) and primes them for the next stage of social and emotional regulation. Children must first be given the freedom in unstructured play time to explore their world and develop physical regulation, so that they can move on to the next developmental stage of social and emotional regulation.

Toys that are gender neutral and non-violent make for excellent tools and symbols for use in unstructured play time. Children also benefit from toys that are easy to manipulate and can be used in many different ways, such as play doh and other art materials or solid building blocks. Neutral toys allow for the child’s imagination to take over, further creating brain connections and integration as they use creativity to learn about the world. Dress up clothes, puppets, and musical instruments all inspire creativity for children.

Carving out time specifically for unstructured play time encourages healthy brain development and helps children learn and develop appropriate means of engaging with their environment. Allowing children to direct their own play gives them an opportunity to get their needs met and conquer current developmental stages and levels of maturity so that they are primed for the next phase. Giving your child the freedom to explore and play is one of the most rewarding and positive things you can do for your child as they learn and grow.

Laura McLaughlin is the Founder and Therapist at HeadFirst Counseling in Dallas, TX. Laura works with children, teens, and parents to foster secure attachments and create an environment for families to thrive. Read more about Laura and HeadFirst Counseling at

Laura can be reached by contacting the HeadFirst Office at (469) 665-9416 or

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