The Importance of Play in the Contexts of Relationships in Infant, Toddler, and Early Childhood Classrooms

By Andria Mills

A recent article in The Atlantic (Christakis, 2016) lamented the overemphasis on academics that characterizes much of early childhood education today, noting that the preschool and kindergarten years serve more as gatekeepers than supporters and “welcoming mats” to the elementary school years, particularly for children at risk.  Indeed, the first five years of a child’s life are dedicated to the preparation for “kindergarten readiness,” and many teachers today are under pressure to engage in didactic teaching practices aimed at promoting young children’s literacy and math competencies.

Unfortunately, such teaching methods often require young children to sit for long periods of time and reflect the use of highly structured teaching methods, paperwork and worksheets that are not in tune with the developmental needs of young children.  Even more concerning is that less developmentally appropriate practices are not only ineffective but also stressful for young children.  In fact, studies have shown that children in classrooms characterized by developmentally inappropriate practices show twice the level of stress (and stress-motivated behaviors) than their peers in more developmentally appropriate classrooms (Hart et al., 1998).  What do we mean by developmentally appropriate practices in early childhood?  For young children, play in the context of warm, supportive teacher-child relationships characterizes an optimal learning environment.

David Elkind once said, “Learning teaches us what is known, play makes it possible for new things to be learned. There are many concepts and skills that can only be learned through play.” Unstructured play, also known as free play, provides so much opportunity for growth. As Horne (2018) explains, play allows young children to acquire and master skills across a variety of developmental domains.  Further, children are free to invest their full emotional energy in their exploration and learning when they share predictable, warm relationships with their teachers, and teacher-child relationship quality is related to children’s more advanced play.

What skills are learned through play?

Play builds a variety of skills!  Play in all areas of the early childhood classroom (e.g., centers such as the block area or pretend play area) offers opportunities for solitary play as well as play near and in collaboration with others.  Such experiences help children build important social skills and mastery motivation (the desire to learn a new skill or master a new competency, for example).  Allowing children to make their own choices about play promotes autonomy and mastery.  In a world in which children have little power, play allows children to make choices according to their interests and goals.  Additionally, play promotes communication and language skills — critical competencies given that it is through communication and language skills that our needs are met and desires are known throughout our lives. Language skills such as holding a conversation, negotiation, vocabulary, and listening skills are supported in play in all areas of the classroom.  Moreover, through play, emotional skills — the foundation for so much learning — are also challenged and developed.  The following are examples of skill development supported through play:

Blocks and Manipulatives

Building block towers invites opportunities to experiment with cause and effect and practice balance and eye-hand coordination.  Building structures involves planning and reasoning, opportunities to notice and sort blocks by shape and size (categorization, seriation, classifying objects, parts and wholes) and provides practice in spatial orientation (e.g., how blocks fit together). Working with puzzles involves experiments with spatial orientation, problem solving, and eye-hand coordination.  Explorations with Duplos, chunky Legos and similar materials invite experimentation with planning and problem-solving as well as exposure to sensory experiences.  Toys that produce interesting effects, like a jack-in-the-box, promote young children’s more rapid cause and effect learning and application of that knowledge in later play (Hauf & Aschersleben, 2008). Over time, block play and play with manipulatives expose children to mathematical concepts in meaningful ways.  For example, observing that two small square blocks equal one rectangular block is math, specifically fractions, at work!

Sensory, Art and Music Experiences

Painting, play dough, water play, sand play and other sensory experiences engage all five senses and provide cause and effect experimentation (e.g., what happens if I use a light stroke versus a heavy stroke; what happens when I keep pouring water into the cup?)  Zero to Three ( describes the development of cause and effect understanding as one of the foundational cognitive discoveries in the early childhood years.  Like other areas of play, sensory play offers opportunities to explore rich new language as teachers and children notice interesting textures and scents and engage in visual exploration of interesting materials.

Music experiences such as songs and chants promote literacy and language skills and also give young children practice in sequencing and memory skills (i.e., what comes next in this familiar story or repetitive chorus).  The development of these types of cognitive skills creates a positive early foundation from which the child can grow; such skills are related to a variety of later school-readiness and academic outcomes.

Pretend Play Experiences

Pretend play promotes perspective-taking and has been linked with the development of children’s self-regulation skills.

For example, as pretend play becomes more advanced, it requires children to modulate their emotions and behaviors in response to others so that the play continues.  Self-regulation, the ability to alter our emotions and behaviors in response to internal (e.g., our thoughts) or external (e.g., others’ behaviors) signals play a role throughout life in helping us navigate social relationships, school and work environments.  Pretend play also offers opportunities for practicing language skills, and children’s language acquisition is richer in the context of play than in other classroom activities (Cohen & Uhry, 2007).  Stanley Greenspan explained that through pretend play children also explore major themes in life, such as what it means to love and be loved.  The child cradling and feeding a doll in the pretend play area is not only imitating observed behaviors but also enacting how loving relationships look and feel.

Motor Play Experiences

Learning about our bodies is a fundamental task of early development. Through physical activity, children learn spatial awareness skills (e.g., imagine a toddler learning how to move her body around another child rather than walking into the other child), balance and  how to be safe.  Opportunities to practice fine and gross motor skills are also associated with children’s acquisition of strength and motor coordination.  Moreover, providing interesting and novel materials promotes motor exploration.  For example, infants make different types of stepping movements on coarse textures than they do on smooth textures.  Motor play also offers opportunities for language exploration and for developing cognitive concepts, such as opposites (in/out of the sandbox; over/under the slide).   Additionally, motor skills are related to many other areas of development.  For example, the ability to crawl or walk allows a young child to move away from a caregiver or teacher and return, allowing infants and toddlers to practice managing brief separations. Even this type of brief separation and reunion reinforces that infants and toddlers can be effective in finding their “safe base” whenever needed. So, in short, motor skills are related to attachment relationships!

Bookshare Experiences

Books provide opportunities for motor and sensory explorations as infants and toddlers explore books with their eyes, hands, and mouths.  Books and storytelling invite toddlers and preschoolers to hypothesize what will happen next (e.g., “If you give a mouse a cookie….  What do you think he’ll want next?”)  Books and storytelling proving opportunities to practice cognitive skills like sequencing (e.g., the repetitive text of “Caps for Sale” provides practice in sequencing). Young children’s stories addressing affective experiences (joy, sadness, anxiety) provide important openings to talk about the emotional cues, the contexts of emotions, empathy and perspective taking.  From manipulating books, children acquire literacy knowledge including understandings of written language, letter and word identification and book knowledge.  Sharing books and stories together, as with other forms of play, offer relationship building experiences as children, their peers, and teachers share interests and joy in being together.

Cooperative Mealtime Experiences

Mealtimes also offer developmental opportunities.  Meals build a sense of community as children engage in prosocial behaviors such as setting the table, passing bowls of food around the table, talking and being together.  Sensory explorations of food textures, scents, sights, and tastes promote sensory development and language skills.  Math concepts, such as one to one correspondence, are supported as children place one cup and one plate at each place setting or as a teacher or other children notice: “I had three crackers.  I ate one and so I have two crackers left.”   Children’s sense of self and autonomy are supported as children serve themselves in family-style dining in the classroom.

What does play look like?

Play offers many developmental benefits when supported and promoted in ways that are sensitive and responsive to children’s cues and interests.  Rymanowicz (2015) summarizes many of the key characteristics of high-quality play.

  • Self-chosen and self-directed. The beauty of play is that it is based on children’s emerging interests and goals rather than on those of the adults.  This is a critical feature of play.  For example, studies have shown that child-selected activities predict greater vocabulary skills than do teacher-directed activities (Lippard, Choi & Walter, 2019).
  • The process, not the product.  It is through the process of play that skills are practiced and acquired regardless of what a final product might be.  For example, it is the joy of feeling grass on the feet that promotes sensory development not the end result of walking outside.  It is not a completed block structure that promotes skills development; it is the journey of selecting blocks, stacking them, determining what makes the structure balance or topple, and so on that builds competencies.  Some play is exploratory with no particular goal in mind outside of experiencing the moment.  Other play has a goal determined by the child, and, often such goals are more about the creation process than a particular product (e.g., consider how many times you notice a child’s process and ending outcomes change and morph as the child engages in play).
  • Individually constructed.  The child or children in play together determine the structure of the play — that is, the organization, pace and boundaries of play.  As I explain below, teachers can support and scaffold children’s experiences but their actions should be guided by children’s processes and cues.
  • Imaginative, Active, and Fluid.  One of the most interesting things to watch in  children’s play is that it is not always tied to the rules of the “real world.”  In their play, children will escape the bounds of reality and, at other times, they will practice their understanding of the real world as expressed in their play. Play themes morph frequently, and these are examples of creative thinking and problem-solving. Teachers can learn a great deal about how children are feeling and what they are thinking by observing their play.

It is important to understand that every child develops differently and because of this each child’s play will look differently. It is through play that young children learn about our “symbolic world” and the themes and subjects we experience every day. Child psychiatrist Stanley Greenspan created the Floortime approach, which emphasizes the importance of child-led floor time to engage the child in complex play scenarios that build on real world readiness skills. Floortime encourages children to take initiative but also learn to negotiate and tolerate frustration, to engage in longer play episodes as skills are acquired, to communicate interests and needs, and to plan and carry out actions.  Greenspan’s model has most often been applied to children with special needs, but the principles of his approach are relevant to children of all developmental abilities.  Greenspan’s approach also emphasizes the importance of the symbolic world and recommends identifying and supporting real-life experiences (e.g., encouraging role playing) that are known to the child and are of interest to the child.

How do we support learning in play using a relationships-based approach? 

In an early childhood classroom, play should comprise the majority of the day.  When children are enacting their own choices, they are fully engaged, which means their focus and attention are in full bloom and the opportunities are endless.  Not only does this promote brain development and skill development, but it makes a young one want to come to school, want to learn and want to explore. But how is play best supported by relationships?  Relationships promote play in two key ways.

First, from an attachment-based perspective, young children’s experiences reflect a balance between the need for autonomy and exploration and the need for emotional security.

When the needs for emotional security are not met, emotional and physical energy is channeled to security needs at the expense of autonomy and exploration.

So, building close, predictable, warm relationships with young children affords them greater energy to devote toward autonomy and exploration, and that equates to greater learning and more optimal development.  For example, research has shown that warm, secure teacher-child relationships promote preschoolers’ self-regulation skills (Cadima, Verschueren, Leal, & Guedes, 2016), and teachers’ responsive interactions with children are linked to children’s cognitive skills (Hamre, Hatfield, Pianta, & Jamil, 2014).

Second, relationships provide the context in which teachers scaffold children’s play in individualized ways. As we observe young children in play, an infant mental health perspective leads us to ponder not only “What about the baby?” but “What about this child?”  We ask ourselves, “What is the child thinking, feeling, experiencing in this moment? What does this child want and need in this moment?”  From this reflective stance, with the goal of understanding the child’s internal states (e.g., thoughts, feelings, needs, goals), teachers respond with intention to support and scaffold children’s play in ways that are aligned to the child’s interests and goals.  By carefully considering what children need from us, teachers communicate respect and appreciation for young children as individuals each with their own unique experiences, interests, and goals.

In short, teacher-child relationships enable the child to feel felt and heard, and, in turn, children are emotionally fueled to learn and grow.   

Below are teaching practices that use the relationship to scaffold play and learning.

  • Be physically and emotionally present. Teaching is complex, challenging work.  Given high rates of teacher stress, it can be difficult to be fully present in the moment with the child.  Teachers have the difficult task of managing competing demands for their time, attention and support while also regulating their internal thoughts, emotions, and perceptions of stress.  Yet, it is the teacher’s emotional presence and participation with children that promote children’s learning in the most optimal ways.
    • Watch and Respond to Cues: As noted by Rymanowicz (2015), teachers participate most sensitively by watching and responding to children’s cues. This allows the child to stay in the lead of play while also helping children to form connections between concepts in play.  When teachers allow children to take the lead and wait for invitations to play, children are more likely to feel felt and heard.
    • Use Open-Ended Questions and Comments Wisely: Research has shown that teachers’ sensitive (well-timed and not intrusive) open-ended questions promote children’s more complex block building and pretend play skills.  Well-placed questions and comments (e.g., observations about children’s activities) promote and extend play.
    • Value the Importance of Observation: Sally Provence once wisely advised, “Don’t just do something. Stand there and pay attention!”  Sometimes being physically and emotionally present does not always involve direct interaction with the child.  Sometimes supporting play means observing and learning about the child’s development from your observations.  Being an active observer and learner alongside the child gives teachers important insights into children’s developmental needs and interests.  These observations come in handy when planning future learning experiences.  Sometimes supporting means interacting and scaffolding sensitively.
    • Share the Same Level in Space: Finally, being physically and emotionally present also extends to where and how teachers place themselves in the classroom. Taking time to talk with children at their eye level and using open body position/body language communicates to children that their thoughts, communicative intentions and/or words are valued and desired.
  • Respect the child’s discoveries. From our adult perspectives, we know how things are “supposed” to work; we understand the most effective and efficient ways to engage materials.  We want to see children succeed.  Collectively, this means that teachers may be tempted to show children the “right” way to engage materials or carry out play.  Yet it is the creative process, the mistakes, the rethinking and execution of a new plan and “owning” the experiences and discoveries that promote children’s critical thinking, problem solving skills, conceptual development and sense of mastery (Rymanowicz, 2015).  Support the child by using well placed open-ended questions to allow deeper investigations to take place.  Early childhood teachers are most effective as partners in children’s play rather than as supervisors or leaders of the play.
  • Trust the process. Growth and development progresses in each child in unique timetables.  A “one size fits all” approach to curricular development and teaching rarely works.  Individualizing experiences for children and tailoring our interactions to each child’s temperament, prior experiences, interests and goals is most effective in promoting early development.
  • Avoid interruption and be flexible. As a teacher, I’d like to add another important attribute to this section. Play needs to be uninterrupted.  Uninterrupted play means allowing  a child to be an explorer and learner and being flexible when young children are immersed in play.  For example, teachers who allow a child to finish play or come to a natural pausing or stopping point before inviting the child to diapering or toileting communicate respect for the child as an individual.  Extending free play time for a few minutes to allow children to complete their play or supporting children who wish to bring a toy with them for self-care routines are other examples of flexibility.

Classroom Environment

Finally, relationship-based approaches also inform how teachers create the early childhood environment.  The environment is thought of as the third teacher and reflects teachers’ perspectives about relationships. Here are some aspects to think about when setting up a learning environment.

  • A classroom should be an inviting space that the children see as their own. Spaces for personal belongings, such as a cubby, and spaces for community belongings, such as where the watering can for the class plants is stored, help children know what to expect and to feel welcomed and valued. Other strategies include displaying children’s work throughout the classroom, involving children in care of the classroom, and creating photo books featuring children in the classroom, families, and shared experiences reflect high-quality relationship-based practices.  Experts also suggest using the language of community, such as referring to the children in the classroom as “friends” and referring to “our classroom” to build relationships and emotional closeness (which translates into emotional energy for well-being and learning).
  • Another important element is the design of the room. Materials should be chosen for a reason rather than to fill shelves. Making materials easily accessible to children builds autonomy.  The room should be created to inspire and promote wonder and curiosity.

Play is for a critical component in healthy, early development.  When supported and facilitated in effective ways, play has a dramatic impact on cognitive, language, physical and social-emotional development.  As early childhood educators we have a huge job on our hands. A job that when done in effective, relationship-based ways contributes to children’s bright futures. I challenge you to imbed play into your curriculum. Allow children the time for uninterrupted, meaningful play and you will see the results! Good luck!


Cadima, J., Verschueren, K., Leal, T. & Guedes, C. (2016). Classroom interactions, dyadic teacher–child relationships, and self–regulation in socially disadvantaged young children. Journal of abnormal child psychology, 44(1), 7-17.

Christakis, E. (2016). The new preschool is crushing kids.  The Atlantic, January/February. Retrieved from

Cohen, L. & Uhry, J. (2007). Young children’s discourse strategies during block play: A Bakhtinian approach. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 21(3), 302-315.

Hamre, B., Hatfield, B., Pianta, R., & Jamil, F. (2014). Evidence for general and domain‐specific elements of teacher-child interactions: Associations with preschool children’s development. Child development, 85(3), 1257-1274.

Hauf, P. & Aschersleben, G. (2008). Action-effect anticipation in infant action control. Psychological Research, 72(2), 203-210.

Horne, A. (2018). All Work No Play. Bridges Care and Education Center

Rymanowicz, K. (2015, Oct. 19). The power of play — Part 2: Born to play. In Michigan State University — MSU Extension.