As parents, we are constantly trying to do the best for our children. We take them for check-ups, provide nutritional food, and keep a loving and nurturing home for them. It’s not easy. In fact, it’s exhausting! Sometimes it’s all I can do to keep myself upright until it’s time to tuck my little munchkin in for bedtime. And if we’re so exhausted by trying to keep our little ones healthy and happy, when are we supposed to worry about their development? The answer is in intentional play. “Play, in all of its forms, is an essential part to a happy and healthy life” (Mraz, Porcelli, & Tyler, 2016).

Intentional play has so many benefits for your developing child. Imagine doing something that supports your child’s social, emotional, language, academic, motor skills, and cognitive functioning development all at the same time. But Jenna, I’m so stressed and tired as it is…how am I supposed to incorporate this intentional play into my daily routine? I get it. The struggle is real! But, I can tell you that you can exponentially increase your child’s development through intention and simplicity with only 10 minutes of purposeful play per day. Let’s check it out, shall we?

cute boy and his mother doing an intentional play session with colorful blocks

After reading this post, you will know:

  • Why intentional play is an important piece of the development puzzle
  • The difference between independent and guided play
  • The benefits of play
  • Quick, simple steps to make play more powerful

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Why Intentional Play?

Play is a significant way in which children learn to negotiate and discover the world around them. Their interactions with the toys they choose to play with help them to create meaning, negotiate difficulties, and build perseverance.

Take my son’s wooden train set. He is not yet two years old, but he is learning about the different types of transportation through the different shapes and purposes of the vehicles. He is learning how bridges work and how something that is elevated needs to be supported or else it will fall down. Additionally, he is learning how wheels work and when a vehicle like the boat doesn’t have wheels, it doesn’t glide smoothly across the track like the train does.

Play results in magical learning.

The Effectiveness of Intentional Play

We know that all children learn differently and at different rates. This is due to how children process information and what their preferred modality is for learning.

Children learn best when they are engaged and active. It’s also helpful when children have access to learning through different modalities. This means that they can access the learning socially, visually, physically, audibly, musically, etc.

How Intentional Play Supports Learning

Play is one of the most engaging activities for children. They can choose what they want to play and how they want to play, allowing them to become more invested in their play and learning.

Kids play with wooden railway. Child with toy train. Intentional play for young children. Little boy building railroad tracks on white floor at home or kindergarten. Cute kid playing cars and engine.

Engagement creates opportunities for learning. The brain is soaking up the child’s play experience as it is happening and creating meaningful and long-lasting learning.

The Difference Between Child Directed and Intentional Play

Understanding the difference between these two types of play is an important distinction.

Child Directed

There are many different types of play that fall into this child-directed category. But, the main idea is that the child is 100% in charge of the play and is creating the rules, parameters, and understandings within their play.

Imaginative (pretend) play, games, building blocks, and movement play are all examples of child-directed play.

These types of play still hold tremendous benefits and learning opportunities as children negotiate and learn about the the world around them.

Children are highly engaged in this type of play because it is on their terms, at their pace, and is of high interest to them.

The best part?

It supports critical thinking, gross and fine motor development, social development, and emotional development, just to name a few.

Guided: Intentional and Purposeful

Toddler boy playing with toy truck for intentional play session

Guided play is a type of play where you, as the adult, sets the purpose, but allow the child to freely play within the parameters you’ve set.

The beauty of this is that your child is still involved in play and receiving the benefits of play. However, they are also getting the added benefit of your intended purpose of the play session.

There are two ways that you could implement intentional play. A healthy mix of both options are ideal!

First, you could incorporate your goal into your child’s play. This means that even though you have an intention behind the play, your child still is freely playing and just using materials and your ideas to support their own play.

An example of this would be if you were to expose your child to letters in the alphabet. You might have some magnetic letters or bathtub letters for your child to explore and add them into their play. They may put these letters in their construction trucks and bring them to the construction site or put them inside of the castle they are building.

The other way you can make play intentional is by leading the way that the play happens.

So, this might mean that you want your child to distinguish letters from numbers. You could have them dig through the bathtub letters and numbers in a sandbox and sort them as they pull them out.

In both situations, play is involved, but the amount of guidance changes.

Benefits of Intentional Play

There are many benefits to intentional play that support your child’s overall development. Check them out here!

Boosts Learning and Brain Power

Because intentional play is still engaging, it can increase your child’s learning potential. When your child is engaged, they are able to attend to whatever task you have placed in front of them, allowing them to commit this task to memory.

Because they are engaged and enjoying themselves, they will want to do tasks like this more often. This repetition will support their learning and growth as they develop.

cute boy and his mother doing an intentional play session with colorful blocks

Boosts Creativity and Imagination

Intentional play also boosts creativity and imagination. When you are incorporating items that don’t belong in a specific category into your child’s play, they have to find a way to make sense of it.

They know they wouldn’t see bathtub letters at a construction site in real life, but they use their imagination to create a scenario where this makes sense!

They are creating the rules!

Steps to Creating 10 Minutes of Intentional Play Every Day

So you want to try to create some POWERFUL learning experiences for your child in only 10 minutes per day? Here’s what you need to do to:

Step 1: Decide Your Focus

What do you want your child to learn? Maybe it is a letter in the alphabet. Or maybe it is that pull back cars go faster on certain surfaces (a little lesson in physics!). Maybe you want your child to understand how certain objects sink or float in water.

Whatever it is, you first need to decide.

For my example, I will choose identifying a letter in the alphabet because that is my jam. Let’s say I want to my little munchkin to be able to recognize the letter s.

Step 2: Strategically Set Up Play Area

The next step is to ensure that your play area is conducive to your goal. Think about what materials you need for your child to understand what you want them to.

Where is the best place to do your activity? What do you need? How will your child participate?

Maybe you have a bunch of different pull-back cars and you want to play with them on tile, hard wood, and carpet to see where the car moves fastest.

Maybe you want to fill up a baby pool outside and gather different waterproof objects to play with in the pool under close supervision.

For my example, I know how much my son loves sticky walls. I want him to be able to distinguish and name the letter S from other letters. So I will have a part of the sticky wall for S and one for all other letters. I will also have a bunch of cards that have different letters on them.

Step 3: Observe and Guide on the Side

Now for the fun part!

Sit back and watch your child interact with the play-land that you’ve created.

While you’re observing, notice if your child is achieving your goal for playtime. Can they understand what you want them to understand?

Are they noticing how the pull-back cars move at different speeds on different surfaces?

Are they seeing how a spoon sinks to the bottom of the kiddie pool, but an apple floats?

In my example, is my munchkin able to identify the letter s from all of the other letters?

This is where the magic happens. This play is not as powerful if you’re not there talking your child through it. You need to say what you’re observing, and don’t be afraid to use big words!

Tell your child that there is more friction on the carpet and that’s why the car is moving slower.

Your job is to guide on the side and narrate the play. The more language, the better!

Step 4: Reflect

Now it’s time to take a step back and reflect on your intentional play.

Was your child engaged? Were they able to accomplish what you wanted them to?

This is where you think about what went well and what you can change for next time. Tweaking your approach to meet your child’s needs is a powerful way to make the most out of play. You have to experiment to find what works and what doesn’t. But the most important thing is that you’re taking action and trying!

10 Powerful Minutes

So there you have it! My few steps to create an intentional play experience that will supercharge your child’s learning in 10 minutes. When you tack on a goal and set some parameters around play, magical things can happen.

You can exponentially increase your child’s development through intention and simplicity with only 10 minutes of purposeful play per day. So even the busiest and most tired mamas can take advantage of this simple approach.

If you’re really looking to maximize results in minimal time, you definitely need to check out my FREE Ages & Stages Read Aloud Guide. This guide will take you from simply picking up a book and reading it TO your child to reading WITH your child and making magic happen. The simple, actionable tips are easy to follow and all you need is a book! Download now for FREE!