The Importance of Play

by - March 09, 2018

Play is often talked about as if it were relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood" ~Fred Rogers 

Next to love, I believe that play is the most important part of childhood. And it's good for adults too! As a parent, Music Together teacher, and documentary/lifestyle family photographer, play is at the heart of what I do and seek to inspire.

Play is at the heart of our childhood memories.  

I remember that wonderful feeling of being immersed in my own imaginative world, free to play for hours, build couch forts, sail sticks down streams, make up games with my brother and friends, pore over books, or just sit and think.

boy on tire swing ©Diana Sherblom Photography
Rediscovering play has been one of the best parts of being a parent. My children and I have played countless made up games together--the silly worm (he kept falling off the couch), blue whale in the bathtub (he kept getting wet and getting upset about it), rescuing people in our "fire engine" (our car). 

They've done all the things I remember from my childhood, from dressing up as superheroes, to transforming a cardboard box into a spaceship, to building elaborate raceways, block towers and fantastic memories along the way.
Author and son on teeter-totter ©Diana Sherblom Photography
a "vintage" photo of me and my son playing with the concept of balance

Prints of children playing with paint in backyard ©Diana Sherblom Photography
some favorite prints of my kids playing with paints in the backyard
What is play? Play is freely chosen, self-motivated, and experimental. It takes place in an environment where there are no restrictions on how to act, think, or do, and where exploration, discovery, and practice are possible without fear of consequences. Most of all, play is fun. And fun is learning.


boy lying on top of playground balls and grass Music Together Vivo! Park Playalong © Diana Sherblom Photography
playful moments at a Music Together Vivo! Park Playalong

boy about to run through hula hoop held by Mom Music Together Vivo! Park Playalong © Diana Sherblom Photography

The importance of learning through play is well established in scientific literature. The bottom line is that play is the foundation of social, emotional and cognitive development, and has a profound and direct effect on children's confidence, EQ and IQ.

In real life, however, actual play can be elusive. The goal of play is fun, and that doesn’t always fit with grown-up, results-oriented, time-strapped agendas. The benefits of play are often invisible in the moment: the neurological development that is happening internally, won't necessarily be expressed externally until much later. And despite the research, many classes and childhood environments are not truly play-based.

Cheryl modeling pinwheel with children Music Together Vivo! Park Playalong © Diana Sherblom Photography
Cheryl Sabo (Music Together Vivo! Director) models playing with pinwheels at one of our Park Playalongs

child playing with pinwheels in sand Music Together Vivo! Park Playalong © Diana Sherblom Photography 

As parents and teachers, we need to make time and space for play.


One of my big takeaways from my first year as a parent in Music Together, was recognizing the moments when my son had a wide-eyed, slack-jawed expression and was doing "nothing" in class, but when neurologically he was doing everything. He was absorbing: processing the music and environment around him, and his brain was busy creating the structures that he'd need to keep a beat, play an instrument, do math, socialize and master language, to name just a few skills. 

Of course, I already knew about child development. I knew that children needed that freedom to explore and experience the world at their own pace, and I had no trouble supporting my children in this at home. In fact, I chose Music Together class for my family because of the play-based, informal learning environment.

But in class, I still had to tell my adult brain that it was ok to just let him be (and that this class was a safe space to do this), and later, as a toddler, to let him quietly stack shakers by the window instead of doing what the adults were modeling in the circle. 

I trusted the process, and then one day, when we went home, he recreated and led the entire class for me and a few stuffed animals. To the casual observer, in class, he would have looked like he wasn't paying attention or participating, but it was clear that he knew every song, every movement we'd done, by heart.

Today, my children are teens, and I see the effects of play on their lives. I see it in the way they are self-motivated problem-solvers and creative thinkers who love to learn, improvise and design projects, just for fun. 

As a parent, photographer, and teacher, I recognize and celebrate those moments of quiet absorption, genuine connection, delighted discovery and authentic happiness during play. And I love to catch playful moments in documentary family photography sessions. For me, play is what childhood is all about. 

For a child “play begins in delight and ends in wisdom.” 


Toddler with egg shaker at Together Vivo! Uncle Gerry concert © Diana Sherblom Photography
a quietly playful moment from the 2016 Music Together Vivo! Uncle Gerry concert

Boy and Mom Music Together Vivo! Uncle Gerry concert © Diana Sherblom Photography


Children dancing together at Together Vivo! Uncle Gerry concert © Diana Sherblom Photography
modeling, imitation and cooperative play from the Music Together Uncle Gerry concert

What does play look like in your family? What do you remember about playing as a child? What are your favorite ways to play with your children? Tell me about it below...

Find out more about Music Together Vivo! classes or connect with me to book a playful documentary family or child portrait session.

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8 comments

  1. This should be required reading by all adults and educators. Playing, especially outside, is something so important yet something that seems to have been lost. I remember coming home from school and then immediately running outside to play. I wouldn't see my parents until I heard my Mom calling my name for dinner. If it was the summer time, I'd head back outside after eating. My favorite game to play in the evenings was kick the can. So much fun!

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    1. David, I love those games like kick the can and hide and seek tag! I hope we can bring back the fun of outdoor (and indoor) play to this generation.

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  2. What a SUPERB article! So informative!!! Thank you. Honestly, I don't enjoy playing with my kids. I find it exhausting. I feel like I've created a home structure where my kids are unable to play independently (this isn't true - it's just how I feel sometimes). I love watching them as they immerse themselves in imaginary play or just being kids outside on the trampoline. We do have one kid who really DOES have trouble with any type of unstructured play and DOES want to be constantly entertained. Otherwise he literally just sits on the couch and sighs and whines. Yeah. Not fun. Frustrating. Maybe we didn't play enough with him as a small child?? (I doubt it!) lol!

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    1. Kelly, you bring up a really good point! As adults, we do get tired of playing with the kids sometimes. And that's ok, because they need time to play without adults too. Certainly you are not the only one with children who get bored and want to be entertained. Maybe he just hasn't found that thing that will keep him interested?

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  3. Yay for play! I too have found rediscovering play as a parent to be so rewarding. Even with all the research, it is so hard as adults to "trust the process." I'm often reminding myself to slow down. Childhood is not a race to get through. Thank you for the reminder here. Loved reading this.

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    1. Thanks Kaleen. I often have to remind myself to live in the moment, too.

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  4. Oh Diana, this is such a wonderful post!
    We prioritize Play in our home. With very limited access to electronics our 8 years old can play, read and draw for hours. And meanwhile is learning an awful lot!! :)

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    1. Thanks Polina! It's great that you prioritize that part of childhood. Electronics are a tricky thing these days! My kids have found ways to play with technology too. Games like Minecraft that require creative thinking and design, creating and publishing videos, doing stop-motion animation, writing blogs, and designing/coding retro video games are all ways they've been creative with tech.

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