Carrie Palmquist, assistant professor of psychology, teaches “Psychology of Play,” and studies how children learn from social interactions.

A great deal of research supports the role of play in children’s development. Play has been linked with healthy brain development (Ginsburg et al., 2007), cognitive development (Tamis-LeMonda et al., 2004), school readiness (Henderson et al., 2007) and social skill development (Lillard et al., 2011). Given the wide-ranging effects of play, caregivers often ask themselves if there is a “right” way to play with children, and if so, what that play might look like. Here I outline a few things to consider when playing with children.

An illustration of a child jumping rope Let them play. This one may seem obvious, given the information above, but it is important that caregivers give children time to play. Indeed, children who were shown to engage in one hour of active play each day were better able to think critically and multitask (Mather et al., 1999). They also had better cognitive control and brain function (Hillman et al., 2014).

An illustration of a child playing with building blocks Old-school play is important. We’ve all heard the recommendations about limiting children’s screen time, and the same recommendations apply when it comes to play. There is evidence that young children benefit less from play that centers on videos and screens. For example, children who play with blocks have been shown to develop better language and cognitive skills than those who watch videos (Hirsh-Pasek et al., 2003).

An illustration of a parent and child playing with toys Play with children. Not only does play promote healthy relationships and bonding between caregivers and children (Tamis-LeMonda et al., 2004), but adults can also provide important scaffolding to support and enrich children’s play (Power et al., 2000), so don’t be afraid to join in during playtime!

An illustration of a child sitting and playing with toys But not all the time. Children also benefit from being able to initiate and direct their own play. In one study, children learned less about how to use a toy when directed by an adult than when exploring it themselves (Bonawitz et al., 2010), so be sure to let children take the lead from time to time.

An illustration of a child playing hop scotch Unstructured play is important. Try to avoid overscheduling children with activities and events. There is a lot of evidence that children’s unscheduled time has decreased in recent years (Ginsburg, et al., 2007). This means that children have fewer opportunities to engage in open-ended play, despite its many benefits. So, when you can, try to make time for the children in your life to engage in unstructured play.

Illustrations by Cristina Spanò