How Play Influences Emotional Growth

When we think about play for children, the two most common benefits that come to mind are the physical progression – such as fine-tuning their motor skills and risk-taking capacity – and brain development. But there’s a more subtle benefit to play that is arguably even more important to children as they navigate friendships and begin to understand the world around them: emotional growth.

In the third of this four-part series, we will explore the emotional benefits of play and how it must be nurtured from a young age. We sat down with Dr Caroline Moul, a research psychologist who teaches the social-cognition stream of the University of Sydney’s Developmental Psychology course, to discuss why play is so powerful.

Image: Richmond Marketplace

The best way to support emotional development

 A playful kid is a happy kid, right? It might seem like a sweeping statement, but in essence it’s the truth. Through play, children are able to experience a range of emotions within their own little worlds, as well as in tandem with other kids who are also learning through play.

As Leah Shafer, writing for Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, puts it, play is all about self-regulation and learning the ‘rules of the playground’.

“Especially in social and guided play, children learn self-regulation as they follow norms and pay attention while experiencing feelings such as anticipation or frustration,” Shafer writes. “Play also teaches children how to set and change rules, and how to decide when to lead and when to follow.”

Emotional regulation

It may be difficult for parents to accept, but Dr Moul says children need to be challenged emotionally during play. It’s a way for them to make their own decisions, navigate the complex world of interpersonal relationships and, most importantly, start to regulate their emotions.

“Emotional regulation is critical because it’s not just changing the way you feel about something, it’s changing the way you represent that emotion in terms of your behaviour,” she says.

“In a play situation, a child is always challenged. When they are on their own, the challenge they encounter is boredom. In a social situation, the challenge is often being frustrated. That may be because they are not able to do what they want to do. Or perhaps they are not succeeding at something, such as falling off the monkey bars. Play helps the child regulate that failure in a safe way – so they can try again.”

Breaking the parent–child dynamic – in a positive way

And it is here that Dr Moul says it’s so important for parents, teachers and carers alike to understand when to intervene and when to let children figure things out for themselves.

“A child’s response to an emotional situation can be quite different with a parent there as opposed to with friends. So a child may hurt themselves with a parent, and they may be very upset and they’ll come for a cuddle. Whereas if they’re with friends, they might just get up and rub themselves off.

“It’s almost like a form of peer pressure but without the negative connotations. There’s an emotional safety to being in the group. If a child hurts themselves and is upset, it also gives another child the opportunity to go and do the appropriate thing. They can demonstrate their own empathy and help with that emotional regulation in a peer-relationship way.”

Image: Eastland

3 signs play is helping emotional development

 You don’t have to explicitly tell children that they will be learning all about their emotions through play – like all the other benefits of play, the emotional side of things is often inconspicuous. That being said, it’s worth looking out for the following:

There may not be an obvious visual link between play and greater emotional health, but it’s certainly a key part of why it’s so crucial for children to engage in a variety of play styles.

PlayOn! is a huge supporter of play. We create bespoke children’s playgrounds that you can find in shopping centres and public waiting areas all around Australia, with the goal of encouraging children to learn and develop – both mentally and physically – through play. You can find out more about what we’re doing for childhood play here.