Social and Emotional Benefits of Play

“Play helps children feel good about themselves.”
- Australian Early Childhood Mental Health Initiative

Play is fun! We all know that. Did you know play also has crucial social and emotional benefits for your child? And nature play benefits your child even further! During early childhood, children need opportunities to develop their social and emotional skills - skills that will be used throughout their life. Play provides these opportunities! We at LEAP feel so strongly about the importance of play, we even included it in our program name. While you're at LEAP, things may look and feel a little unstructured or chaotic, but it's designed that way for a reason! When a child plays in an unstructured or loosely structured environment, where they get to make choices about how to play, they are benefiting in ways that can have positive, long-term effects. Below are some of those benefits and some reasons you can feel GREAT about coming to the zoo each week!

Social and Emotional Benefits of Play

Improved social relations – Children who have regular opportunities for free unstructured play tend to be smarter, healthier, and happier. They are also quick to get along with others (Burdette and Whitaker, 2005). Children…

  • Practice initiating, sustaining, and ending interactions
  • Have opportunities to make choices
  • Make connections with others



Improved self-discipline – Access to play, and nature, helps to enhance self-control as well as self-discipline (Taylor, Kuo, and Sullivan, 2002). Children…


  • Gain confidence – in self and in one’s choices
  • Increase self-esteem
  • Have opportunities to manage and express feelings



Reduced stress – Spending time playing in nature or green city spaces that include plants and access to natural play spaces have shown to reduce stress in both youth and adults (Wells and Evans, 2003). Play in nature…


  • Is an outlet for built-up energy
  • Provides opportunities to engage multiple senses
  • Increases focus and self-awareness



Improved creativity and problem solving – Studies have found that children engaged in more creative forms of play tend to play more cooperatively. Nature plays an important role in developing creativity, problem-solving, and intellect (Kellert, 2005). Children…


  • Learn and practice cooperation
  • Experience cause and effect in action
  • Develop preferences and independence



Play helps your toddler become happier, healthier, and smarter. The advantages are too numerous to list, and could possibly feel overwhelming, but in a good way! Here are a few tips to ensure that your child is experiencing socially and emotionally stimulating play:

  • Make time for play – it doesn’t need to be “scheduled” but should be often
  • Help find safe places to play, both indoors and outdoors
  • Provide play items, and allow children to find their own – natural items make great toys!
  • Read and tell stories together
  • Play together when invited/asked, and stop when your child wants to play on his/her own
  • Follow your child’s lead – it can be tough to take a step back! Soon it will feel natural!

Children learn more within their first few years than at any other life stage. These early years include many milestones and require navigational skills. Here at LEAP, you and your child have a safe space to grow - and play! - together.

Written by Nicole Filippone

References & Resources:

  • Burdette, H. L., & Whitaker, R. C. (2005). A National Study of Neighborhood Safety, Outdoor Play, Television Viewing, and Obesity in Preschool Children. Pediatrics, 116(3), 657-662.
  • Kellert, S. R., Ph.D. (2005). Reflections on Children’s Experience of Nature. C&NN Leadership Writing Series, 1(2).
  • Kids Matter: Australian Early Childhood Mental Health Initiative
  • Nature Play Begins at Your Zoo & Aquarium – AZA
  • Taylor, A. F., Kuo, F. E., & Sullivan, W. C. (2002). Views Of Nature And Self-Discipline: Evidence From Inner City Children. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 22(1-2), 49-63.
  •  Wells, N. M., & Evans, G. W. (2003). NEARBY NATURE: A Buffer of Life Stress Among Rural Children. Environment & Behavior, 35(3), 311.