The Role of Play in Emotional Development


Play is the work of a child, but it is also the language of the child, and the medium through which they best express themselves and cope with feelings.

Children use play to release emotions, work through feelings and to understand their world better by play-acting in situations they can control (“Back to Basics”, n.d.)

For example, a child might witness or experience a car accident, and later, might begin to re-enact the car accident through toy cars in his/her play. This helps the child to understand his or her experience more clearly and to release any emotions that he or she may have felt while witnessing or experiencing the accident. This is similar to an adult who talks about his or her experiences with another adult.

While some children may choose to simply talk about their experiences as well, it isn’t always as effective because children, especially very young children have more limited vocabularies than adults. Therefore, it is easier for children to use toys as a means to express themselves and to work through their emotions. It is through play, in fact, that a child learns to talk about his/her feelings. Children in the example above may tell a friend or a parent who may be present in the room, that they felt scared when they saw or experienced the accident, while they are actively re-enacting it with the toy cars.

In summary, play is largely important to children’s overall development through the ways described in these blog posts and much more. While different types of play have been highlighted as examples of supporting different areas of development, it is important to recognize that many types of play support many areas of a child’s development all at once! For example, a group art project supports a child’s fine-motor (small-muscle), social, cognitive and emotional development, through painting/drawing, (perhaps even cutting and gluing), taking turns, planning and assessing and expression. Another example is a game of tag, which supports a child’s gross-motor (large-muscle), social and cognitive development through running, communicating and planning.

Therefore, with so much being learnt and supported through play, it is no wonder that it is formally recognized as a right of every child. In addition, the best part about it is, play is fun! Children (and adults) enjoy playing immensely.

So, next time your child (or the child that you’re babysitting) is playing, stop and look a little closer to see if you can notice what they are learning. Better yet, join in and play with them! 



This is a series of guest posts by Raquel Marshall, a registered Clinical Psychologist in Barbados providing counselling and psychoeducational assessment services for children and adults. You can visit Raquel’s professional Facebook page here.

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