The Value of Play Through Youth Fitness

Play is critical to healthy human development. Research shows that children are at their highest level of development when they are at play. As the foundation of learning, play helps children’s physical, social, cognitive, communicative and sensory needs, while providing emotional fulfillment and enjoyment.

It is important for teachers and recreation professionals to advocate for play initiatives and effectively communicate how investing in play results in healthy outcomes. Here are some important points from reports by the American Academy of Pediatrics (Ginsburg, 2007; Milteer & Ginsburg, 2012) on the importance of play:

  • Play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity and physical, cognitive and emotional strength.
  • Play is important to brain development.
  • Play allows children to create and explore a world they can master, conquering their fears while practicing adult roles.
  • Play helps children develop new competencies that lead to enhanced confidence and the resiliency they will need to face challenges.
  • Undirected play allows children to learn how to work in groups, to share, to negotiate and to resolve conflicts.
  • Some play must remain child-driven, with facilitators or caregivers with not present or as passive observers. When play is child-driven, children practice decision making, move at their own pace, discover their own areas of interest, and engage fully in the passions they wish to pursue. When adults constantly control play, children revert to adult rules and concerns and lose some benefits of free play, particularly in developing creativity, leadership and group skills.
  • Play builds active, healthy bodies.
  • Play provides a forum for parents and children too joyfully interact, bond and engage in recreation together, which is critical for all children and especially children in underserved areas.

Following is a brief overview of the several types of play and their importance to a child’s world. Providing a balance of facilitated and free play opportunities is important for children’s development.

Free play is play that is dictated and controlled by children without adult input or guidance.

Imaginative play is a type of free play that involves children using their minds creatively; in other words, it’s play that involves elements of dramatic play, pretend or make-believe.

Guided play offers a loosely defined framework of social rules in which the environment may be more regulated than free play.

Directed play is play that occurs under the direction of an adult, usually in order to meet a specific objective (such as physical fitness) that is not chosen by the children.

In Play On! there are designed activities for children to meet moderate to vigorous levels of physical activity, but we also ask them to use their imaginations and to engage in free play as they build and expand on these activities to make them their own.

Play On! enables teachers and community leaders to take children to playgrounds and to engage them in playground learning activities that are physically challenging, designed to encourage creativity and provide memorable play experiences with their peers.

Play is a right, not a privilege. As noted play expert and contemporary psychologist Dr. Stuart Brown says, “Play energizes us and enlivens us. It eases our burdens. It renews our natural sense of optimism and opens up to new possibilities.”

We hope that this program inspires you to become a passionate play advocate so that, together, we can improve the access to and quality of outdoor play and learning spaces and opportunities for all children. 

Want to find out more about play and youth fitness?

Explore Youth Physical Fitness


More in Blog

Related News


Sep. 20, 2017

The Science of Play: Why Play?

Because nature designed us to play. Because we are built to enjoy its nature-assured benefits, which are manifold and often subtle in their manifestations.


Apr. 18, 2018

5 Design Practices to Incorporate Nature Play into Pathways

Incorporating nature play along a pathway creates play opportunities for the whole family to explore, learn, and enjoy.


Apr. 17, 2019

Hit the trails and play as a family!

Playful paths take the trail model beyond the traditional user to more fully engage the public with new ways to attract children to the trail.