PANHANDLE PERSPECTIVES: The importance of play

By Jackie Guzman   Extension Educator – Learning Child

As parents, grandparents and other relatives and care-givers are home with children because schools are closed due to Covid-19, it is good to remember the importance of play to the growth and development of every child.

Play is a crucial part of a child’s development. It starts in infancy and should continue throughout his or her life. Playing with your child not only helps build a positive relationship and strengthen bonds with the child, but it has additional benefits as well.

Play provides multiple opportunities for children to learn social, communication, and academic skills while building confidence and positive self-esteem. Through play you can help your child learn to solve problems, explore his or her creativity, and build vocabulary. Children learn important friendship skills like turn taking, sharing, and being empathetic. And unstructured, physically active play may lead to healthier children, especially when it replaces or helps limit screen time.

Play builds important communication skills

An essential benefit of play is that children begin to learn social and communication skills sharing, turn taking, and problem solving that will help them be more successful when playing with other children. When children have these skills, it often makes it easier for them to make friends.

Giving suggestions, being helpful, giving complements, and understanding how and when to give an apology are all important friendship skills to model when playing with your child.

Here are ways to add more playtime with your child into a busy schedule:

  • Brainstorm when you would have 10-15 minutes a day to play with your child. Be certain to write it down in your calendar.
  • Ask your child for suggestions about how they would like to spend time playing with you and make a list of all the ways you can play together.
  • If you have more than one child, consider taking this opportunity to spend some one-on-one playtime with each child. You can also plan family fun nights that include play or games.
  • Remember that time spent in the car or taking a walk is another good time to play and to develop skills. You can play age-appropriate games that incorporate looking for colors, shapes, letters, and words, and so on.
  • Don’t forget books. Look for books that teach friendship and play skills

Follow Your Child's Lead

When playing with your child, remember to follow your child’s lead. That means to allow for play situations where the child is in control and the adult follows the child’s lead. It is important that children be the decision-makers during play, choosing what and where to play, choosing roles for each player, and choosing how play will proceed.

Here are some ways to learn to follow your child’s lead

  • Follow your child’s lead. That means to wait, watch, and then join your child’s play
  • With very young children talk, talk, and talk about what your child is doing. The adult imitates the child’s play and uses “talk” or “narration” to facilitate language development, and this helps your child remain engage
  • Encourage your child’s creativity and imaginative thinking Display artwork or stories in a prominent place (the fridge) or put them in frames. Create an art corner with art supplies and paper for children to be creative. Ask children to make up their own stories or create their own endings to familiar storie
  • Watch for your child’s cues. Most children aren’t very subtle when they want your attention, like tugging at your pant leg or greeting you at the front door when you get home from work. Planning a specific time to play may sometimes prevent your child from demanding your time when they know that you have set aside time to play with the
  • Avoid power struggles. Remember you can be intentional about what you might like your children to learn from playing; however, keep it simple and allow your child to direct the play.

Most important, have fun together!


Nebraska Extension recently added three new remote access programs for children:

For 3rd-5th graders: Living Room Learning ( ): Tune in every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon at 1 p.m. Mountain Time for Nebraska 4-H's Living Room Learning. Youth will participate in a hands-on virtually guided activity where they will learn about healthy living, science, technology, and more. Each session will focus on a new activity that can be done with materials found at home. Living Room Learning activities are perfect for youth in 3rd-5th grades. Each session will be recorded and made available for on-demand viewing. Youth do not need to be 4-H members to participate.

For 6th-9th graders, Boredom Buster Challenge ( Tune in every Monday and Wednesday afternoon at 1 p.m. Mountain Time. Each week, youth will be given a problem to solve using materials found in their home. On Monday, the challenge is introduced and on Wednesday exciting twists and turns are introduced. Through these hands-on virtually guided challenges youth will learn about entrepreneurship, healthy living, science, technology, and more. Each session will be recorded and made available for on-demand viewing. Youth do not need to be 4-H members to participate.

For younger children, Beautiful Day ( : The UNL College of Education and Human Sciences, in partnership with the Nebraska Extension Learning Child team, created this website for more resources, featuring Early Childhood team and their family members.

Article sources:

Lerner, Clair Greenip, Sharon (2004). The Power of Play Learning Through Play from Birth to Three. Retrieved from

Anderson-McNamee, Jona (2010). The Importance of Play in Early Childhood Development. Retrieved from