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Development through play

Children experience different types of development through play.

This includes:

  • physical development
  • intellectual development
  • social development
  • emotional development
  • language and literacy development

Encouraging your child's development through play - HSE

Physical development

During play, children will learn to move, balance and lift things.

This helps them develop the fundamental movement skills that will help them stay active in later life.

As children get older, physical play will also help them to stay healthy and active. It also strengthens their bones and muscles.

Download the HSE booklet - Active Play 0-3 (PDF, 578kb, 10 pages).

Intellectual development

Play helps children develop their memory, thinking and reasoning skills.

During play, children between 2 and 3 years old will learn how to:

  • use their imagination
  • count
  • tell the difference between different shapes and sizes

Language and literacy development

Language development begins in the womb. When your child is born they recognise your voice and will turn their head in the direction of it when they hear you speak.

It is important to continue to speak to your child. The more words they hear, the bigger their vocabulary will be.

You can encourage this by doing the following things.

Chat with your child

Talk to them about everyday things. Talking about what you are doing is a great way to do this if you are stuck for things to say.

Notice and build on your child’s interests

Name what they are doing. For example, "oh, you are kicking your legs". For an older child you might say, "you are playing with your toys".

Use new words when you talk with your child

For example instead of saying "that's a big tower", you might say "that's a tall tower" or "an enormous tower".

Read to your child

It's never too early to read to your baby. It's also a good way to start building routine into your day.

Supporting your child's language and literacy -

Social development

Strong positive relationships are key to building your child's social and emotional development.

Play over time will help your child to develop their own identity.

Children also learn how to make friends and care for people through play. For example, playing with dolls can help your child to understand and care about other people’s needs.

Stimulate your child's senses

Stimulating your child’s senses during play can encourage learning and development.

Children learn through play, using:

  • sight - seeing colours, movement, sizes and textures
  • smell - familiar smells can comfort your baby
  • sound - for example new noises, music or you reading to them
  • taste
  • touch


All your child's toys should be suitable for their age. Young children put things in their mouths to explore textures and tastes.

Help your child develop through play

You can help your child to develop during play by doing the following things:

  • Engage with your child’s interests - this lets them know that they are important to you
  • Copy how they play - for example, if they shake a rattle, you shake a rattle too
  • Talk about what they’re doing - for example, “you’re pushing the car”
  • Be slow and repeat - your child’s brain needs time to learn new skills
  • Listen - they will know that you are interested in their ideas, thoughts and feelings

Most importantly, have fun together.

Following child’s lead in play - infant mental health (video)

Page last reviewed: 15 September 2022
Next review due: 15 September 2025