How To Encourage Purposeful Play With Your Kids

As parents, we often wonder how to best support our children’s development. We want to give them the best opportunity to grow and thrive. One powerful tool at our disposal is purposeful play. Many assume that play is frivolous or simply fun, and although it is fun, it’s also much more than that. In this article, we’ll explore what purposeful play is, its benefits for learning and development, examples of the different types of play, and how to set your child up for success with purposeful play!

Purposeful play is a specific type of play in which children engage in activities that intentionally provide opportunities for learning and growth.1 It shouldn’t be confused with “free play,” which is spontaneous and entirely driven by the child. Purposeful play often involves activities or games that align with specific learning goals. These goals focus on increasing or improving specific skills and areas of development. These include physical, cognitive, social, and emotional development.1

Purposeful play may be structured, but it can take many forms, whether that be playing games, selecting and sharing educational toys, setting up imaginative scenarios, or reading interactive or educational books.2 The key in purposeful play is that these activities are planned with care and consideration for the specific developmental outcomes you aim to build or develop as they grow. But, ultimately, the main aim is that these activities are still enjoyable for the child.

A young girl with braided hair is smiling while engaging in purposeful play with a yellow hula hoop. She is wearing a yellow shirt and blue denim overalls, standing in front of a green wall with a white horizontal line.

As mentioned, in general, play has important benefits for children. However, purposeful play is important across several different developmental areas:2,3

  • Physical development: When children are encouraged to participate in activities that involve movement, it can help improve their gross and fine motor skills and overall coordination. This includes things like climbing playground equipment or playing a sport, which both support gross motor skills development. It could even involve playing dress-up or drawing, which improves fine motor skills.
  • Cognitive development: Certain activities can enhance children’s love of learning, help them learn to think critically and solve problems, and foster their sense of creativity. Such activities might include blocks, puzzles, or guessing games, which you can get more advanced versions of as your child grows.
  • Social development: When we give our kids the opportunity to engage in group games or play, we provide them with a chance to practice turn-taking, cooperation, and sharing and help them build communication skills. In turn, these skills enhance things like empathy and the understanding of how to work well in a group.
  • Emotional development: All types of play can provide a safe space for children to work through their emotions and express themselves. But purposeful play uses strategic games or play to enhance this (for example, role-playing, dressing up, playing with dollhouses, caring for baby dolls, etc.).

In addition to supporting these key developmental areas, purposeful play supports the transition from home to school learning. Although you aren’t teaching them their ABCs or 123s, by engaging in certain activities mentioned here, you’re helping your child develop foundational skills to set them up for academic success.4

A young girl with glasses and braided hair joyfully engages in purposeful play with colorful geometric blocks at a wooden table. She is wearing a floral-patterned shirt and has her hands raised in excitement. The background is softly blurred with light wallpaper.

It’s essential to understand exactly which development area you hope to target, as purposeful play can include several different types. Some examples of purposeful play include:3

  • Object play: This is a very simple form of play in which a child explores an object and learns all about its use. They use their senses to explore the object.
  • Imaginative play: This is the next step after object play. Once children understand an object (what it does, its function, etc.), they can use it in symbolic ways (for example, a block might represent a mobile telephone). This type of play allows children to explore different roles and scenarios and enhances their creativity, language, and empathy.
  • Constructive play: This activity focuses on building or creating things using other objects, such as craft items, blocks, etc. It improves children’s problem-solving skills, allows opportunities for creativity, and helps them develop fine motor skills.
  • Physical play: This includes things like running, jumping, climbing, or playing games to improve their strength, skills, and general physical well-being.
  • Outdoor play: This involves children learning and exploring the outdoors, either alone or in groups. It supports sensory integration and the development of domains like physical, cognitive, social, and language development.
  • Social play: This could include formal group activities or free play with peers. Social play allows children to practice important social skills, like working as part of a team.
A man helps a young boy ride a bike on a paved path in a park, exemplifying purposeful play. The boy, wearing a yellow helmet and smiling, learns balance and coordination while the man supports the bike from behind. Trees and grass are visible in the background, highlighting this perfect moment of play and learning.

Play doesn’t come naturally to us grown-ups. In fact, some of us can find it pretty awkward, as we don’t really know what to do or say. So, here are examples of strategies to effectively engage your child in purposeful play:

Take notice of what your child is naturally interested in, then incorporate it into play. If your child is interested in dogs, for example, you could create a bingo card for different types of dogs you notice when you go to the local park. Or purposeful play might involve reading a book together that helps them learn more about dogs. Their interests can also change as your child grows older, giving you the opportunity to adjust play at different stages.

It’s easy to become intimidated by purposeful play. But instead of trying to do everything, focus on a specific skill or concept you want to support your child with. For instance, if your child lacks coordination and can be clumsy, you might set a goal to improve their strength and practice coordination. This could involve creating an obstacle course for them to play on. Or you may go to the park and find a balance beam, logs, or a low wall they can walk on. It could even involve playing a game like hopscotch together.

Make sure your home has a designated space where your child can play. It needs to be easily accessible without you being the gatekeeper. This way, they can play when they feel motivated or interested. Ensure they have access to various age-appropriate toys and materials that encourage exploration. Also, provide open-ended toys, like building blocks or art supplies, that they can use in multiple ways.

While it’s important to give your child space to play independently, actively participating in their play can also enhance the experience. Ask open-ended questions, offer guidance when needed, and provide encouragement and positive reinforcement during playtime.

Routine is great, and purposeful play is an excellent tool for helping our children’s development. But we also need to give them free play, choice, and a certain level of autonomy over what activities they do. So, don’t be too rigid when it comes to choosing how or what they play.

You don’t need to add many (if any) new things to your routine. If you love going to the park together, see if you can focus some play on counting how many times they can go down the slide in one minute (counting, physical strength building). Or if you enjoy cooking, get them to help you with a recipe (measurements, fractions, communication, turn-taking).

Purposeful play is a wonderful way to support your child’s development. It provides numerous opportunities to build their cognitive, social, emotional, and physical skills. By understanding what purposeful play is and how you can use it to engage your child, you can set them up for future success with problem-solving skills and a love for learning and creativity. With these strategies, you’ll not only enhance your child’s development but also strengthen your bond with them.