PT on the Net Research

How to Engage Children in Play Time for Groups and Individuals

The care that your kids club provides at your facility can be just as impactful on your smallest members as it is for the parents that attend. Knowing how to best engage and help them evolve and grow in the time that they are in your care can be daunting. Let’s look at how your kids club can engage children in play time in a way that enriches their little lives, and promotes them using their bodies during play to combat the biggest health problems that children face today – ‘playing’ your part in helping the next generation with the tools to live their most fulfilled lives.

Learning Objectives

Why is play so important for children in a kids club (aged 2 -5)?

Engaging children in play allows them to explore, identify, negotiate, take risks and create meaning - it can help shape the structural design of the brain, by building and strengthening brain pathways. Children who regularly participate in play are more likely to have well developed memory, language and are able to regulate their behaviour. (Bodrova & Leong, 2005)

The toddler brain (aged 18 months to 3 years) is twice as active as the adult brain, this is a time where action based play is very beneficial to develop gross and fine motor skills, think running, jumping, throwing, kicking, pulling, pushing. It allows the body to start to integrate the muscles, nerves and brain functions and is vital to the brain development of children. (Play and Developmental Stages, 2012).

As children grow older from 3 – 6 is when the frontal lobe networks are in their biggest growth period. The right side helps you think creatively and the left side is where you think logically. The frontal lobe is responsible for emotions, problem solving, reasoning, planning, sensory and the memory (What Are the Functions of Frontal Lobe of Brain, 2013)

Let’s explore different types of play that can be utilised in a kids club to engage children.

Physical Active Play or Movement Play

Stuart Brown talks about the concept of movement play, he states that “through movement play, we think in motion, it lights up the brain and fosters learning, innovation, flexibility, adaptability and resilience’ (Play, 2010). Sounds like elements that are great foundations to provide opportunities for children to fall in love with movement play at an early age to combat the top health concerns that children of this generation are faced with.

Social Play

We as humans seek out connection. Play allows children to interact and learn social rules such as sharing, give and take, moral reasoning and sets the foundations for children to function in society and in relationships with others. There are also subtypes of social play. (Play, 2010).


Also known as parallel play where children will be doing things next to each other as individuals but are not necessarily interacting, things like playing alongside in a sand pit, drawing or playing blocks. This type of play is seen as a bridge to more interactive play with one another. (Play, 2010). As children grow older this type of play evolves, where they will start to reach out to have others join in their games, it is particularly important to build empathy for others.

Rough and tumble play

In an age where we are very safety conscious children are more and more discouraged from rough and tumble play. What is not understood is that this kind of play is critical to the development of social awareness, cooperation, fairness and becoming concerned for other’s wellbeing. (Play, 2010).

Celebratory and ritual play

Not organised by children, but allow the child to develop a love for ritual play as adults, where they will engage in and enjoy social settings. Celebratory and ritual play are things like birthdays, sport games and holiday celebrations. (Play, 2010).

Constructive Play

“Constructive play is where children manipulate their environment to create things” (Types of Play, 2012). This type of play is particularly important for children to become empowered and create a strong sense of self through experimenting with objects to create things, leaving them feeling as though they have achieved something by being in control of their environment. This is where they explore what worked, what didn’t work and basic skills of problem solving.

Imaginative Play

Imaginative play is where children learn to try out new roles and explore a variety of different situations and scenarios, where they can exercise flexible thinking, getting curious about problem solving, create, use new language, express different emotions in a safe environment where they are immersed in their imagination. (Types of Play, 2012).

Games Based Play

Allowing children to engage with games based play is to help them come to learn and understand the nature of boundaries and rules, to help them understand as they grow, that life comes with rules and social contracts that we need to abide by, where everyone collectively adheres in order for society to function. (Types of Play, 2012).

How can we apply types of play in a kids club environment to engage children?

There are two ways that play can be applied, structured or unstructured both can occur in an indoor setting or outdoors, and it can be completed alone or with others. The types of play mentioned above can be structured or unstructured, with the exception of games based play which is a structured play as it requires rules.

Structured – has rules, boundaries and equipment.

Unstructured – otherwise known as free play, is where the child leads.

What is our role as a coach to help keep children engaged in play time?

Understand the characteristics of play to maximize benefits.

Play is self-chosen and self-directed; Players are always free to quit.

Play allows the child to express themselves freely, where they engage in play because they want to not because they have to. They understand they are in a safe environment where they are able to disengage in the type of play at any point in time. (The Value of Play I: The Definition of Play Insights, 2008).

Play is activity in which means are more valued than ends.

It is not the goal at the end of the playful activity that is important but rather the process that motivates the child, they get lost in the activity. This is why creativity is present in states of play because the mind is focused on the process, therefore the fear of failure is absent and the child feels in an environment that is safe to explore new ways of going about doing things and can utilise information differently. (The Value of Play I: The Definition of Play Insights, 2008).

Play is guided by mental rules.

When a child is engaged in play, there are always rules to some extent. In structured play there are two sets of rules, the rules set by the coach/adult and internal rules the child has created in their mind. In unstructured play there will still be rules as the child will be behaving in accordance to the self chosen rules. For example, if a child is building a sandcastle they know in their mind what they want to create, it doesn’t just happen by chance where sand is slapped together and it resembles a castle, they are drawing on internal rules and boundaries based on information made available to them to create. (The Value of Play I: The Definition of Play Insights, 2008).

Play is non-literal, imaginative, marked off in some way from reality.

“In play one enters a realm that is physically located in the real world, makes use of props in the real world, is often about the real world, is said by the players to be real, and yet in some way is mentally removed from the real world.” Dr Peter Gray (The Value of Play I: The Definition of Play Insights, 2008)

Children go in and out of reality while playing, fiction back into reality.

Play involves an active, alert, but not-stressed framed of mind.

This can also be called ‘flow’ where the child is alert, active, fully engaged but is not stressed about the goal or the outcome of play, or the fear of failure.  They are more concerned with the process or the means of the activity they are participating in. This state of mind for children is extremely beneficial to allow them to learn new skills. (The Value of Play I: The Definition of Play Insights, 2008).

Strength spot to increase participation, create a bond and encourage learning.

Acknowledging and connecting children to their strengths of character and their talents can unlock potential and help boost their life satisfaction (The Value of Strength Based Parenting, 2016). Building children up by focusing on their strengths rather than focusing on their weaknesses, can help build independence, emotional intelligence, and more resourceful, high achieving children.

Strength spotting as a coach is a powerful tool to use to create connection and engagement with children. The best way to spot strengths is to watch children in play with others, identifying the strengths that underpin their actions. For example, their kindness, when they help another child up after they fall or their creativity when they find a way to solve a problem that they were struggling with.

Plan, support, review to increase engagement of play.

The role of the adult is to provide the children with the support, space, time and resources to engage in play time. It is a balance of knowing when to intervene, step back, observe or participate in order for the children to get the most out of play. It is vital that they have a detailed understanding of play and what potential it holds in order to make the most of the opportunities that play can provide, therefore there is the need for planning, support and review of play. (Learning and Developing Through Play).

1. Planning Play

Planning a wide range of play opportunities, structured and unstructured, indoors and outdoors if facility permits, based on the developmental age of the children involved. Ensuring that they are safe, age appropriately challenging, inclusive and fun.

2. Supporting Play

Strength spotting, encouraging, setting boundaries, taking opportunities to raise awareness of lessons that children can learn from observation of them in play, allow space to explore within the boundaries, ensuring safety of children when engaging in play, adapting play to suit individual needs, allowing play to be led by the child, intervening to enforce boundaries when needed, participating in play when appropriate.

3. Reviewing Play

Observing, talking, and listening to children when they are playing to assess what can be changed for future play time to ensure each play time is beneficial and engaging.

How to engage children who find it difficult to play.

- Change the environment, equipment, or delivery to suit their needs.

- Pair a calming, supportive child with the child that is struggling to engage

- Make an activity simpler, by reducing the amount of rules, or break down the steps into smaller pieces of information, show the child how to participate in the activity.

- Focus on the child’s strengths and adapt play time to utilise them

- Focus on the type of play that the child enjoys to build confidence and self-esteem before trying something new.


By having an understanding of the different types of play and how you can utilise them to engage children, you can see how beneficial the seemingly simple and natural act of play is in the healthy growth socially, mentally, emotionally and physically of your littlest members. Your kids club facility truly will be ‘playing’ a role in helping create a healthier, happier, and more aware generation.


Child Health Poll. (2015) Top Ten Child Health Problems. Retrieved from

Active Healthy Kids Australia. (2016) Physical Literacy: Do Our Kids Have All the Tools? Retrieved from

Child Development Institute. (2012) Why Play is Essential for Healthy Development. Retrieved from

Early Childhood Australia. (2010) Why Play Based Learning? Retrieved from

Bodrova, E. & Leong, D. J. (2005). Uniquely preschool: What research tells us about the ways young children learn. Educational Leadership, 63(1), 44-47.

Child Development Institute. (2012) Play and Developmental Stages. Retrieved from (2013) What Are the Functions of Frontal Lobe of Brain? Retrieved from

Brown, S. (2010). Play (1st ed). North Carlton, Victoria, Australia: Scribe Publications Pty Ltd.

Child Development Institute. (2012) Types of Play. Retrieved from

Psychology Today. (2008) The Value of Play I : The Definition of Play Insights. Retrieved from

The University of Melbourne. (2016). The Value of Strength Based Parenting. Retrieved from

Aistear: The Early Childhood Curriculum Framework. Learning and Developing Through Play. Retrieved from