What is Play?

We talk about Messy Play, Nature Play, Playwork, play as a family, Risky Play, and so much more. We quote our Mission Statement which centers around the “Power of Play,” and we consider the ways children play when we design an exhibit or even just a one-day, pop-up program. Sometimes, folks can be so tied up in the details, that we forget to answer the easy questions. 

What exactly IS play, and just as importantly, what is NOT play? 

While there are many definitions of play in different contexts, the Museum uses this one: 

Play is a way that children and adults explore and interact with the world: with the environment, others, materials, imagination, and ideas. It develops interests, builds relationships, and supports life-long skills. Play takes many forms; imaginative, physical, constructive, and social play, which often occur together. An activity that all children engage in, play is critical to healthy development and well-being. Play is child-led, intrinsically-motivated, and enjoyable.

Let’s look at each part of that definition, and share ideas of how to foster play at home and at the Museum. 

Explore and Interact

A natural curiosity exists in all of us, but it is most strong in small children as they begin to find their place in the world. Play allows and encourages them to take the next step, overturn the rock, talk to the other children at the park, create entire fantastical worlds and characters in a single morning, and overall just try new things. Exploration and interaction–with all things in their world–is the fastest way to learn through play. 

Develops Interests

By trying new things during play, where the stakes are low, children are free to take notice and experiment with new things. A child who uses tools for the first time at the Museum might find a fondness for building. Allowing children to choose what areas they explore lets them determine what their natural inclinations and abilities are. 

Definition of Play Childrens Museum of Southern Minnesota

Builds Relationships

It is clear when you watch children play they are forming relationships with each other, but it is also critical in the development of connection with loving and consistent caregivers. When adults are able to observe and engage in play with their children, they get to see the world through their eyes. The interactions that occur through play tell children that parents are fully paying attention to them and help to build enduring relationships.

Supports Lifelong Skills

Play offers so many skills for children, both physical and emotional. Problem-solving, motor development, language, spatial, coordination, communication, negotiation, creativity, and on and on. Through play, children learn about themselves and their world, and most importantly, how to successfully interact with it. Play allows safe spaces for trial and error. The Museum offers many opportunities for children to learn and do things they’ve never tried before. 


Creative energy in children comes from a curiosity within. Igniting the spark to open their imaginations in new ways is a great way to help them absorb and retain information. This includes fantasy play and dress-up, as offered in the Lauri Kuch Memorial Stage and also the art and science offered in Cecil’s Imagineering Loft. Being creative allows children to tell the world about themselves. How they write, tell stories, perform, compose, and construct all share a piece of them with their communities. It allows children to draw connections and make sense of new ideas.

imaginative play at the Children's Museum in Mankato


Research shows the more active the body is, the more endorphins are released, making children not just physically strong, but mentally strong as well. Play builds active, healthy bodies. Risky play facilitates sensorimotor development and increases activity levels. Smaller physical feats like balancing blocks, making models, or planting in the garden engage children’s fine motor skills and coordination. There’s no end to the ways children can engage their bodies in play. 


Problem-solving is just the tip of the iceberg when we consider how children’s minds engage in play. Constructive play happens when children are manipulating objects. From LEGO to doodling, this type of play engages both the physical and mental strengths of children. The cognitive skills used in constructive play–reasoning, memory, concentration–open children up to flexible thinking and adaptive skills. Their brain cells get stretched and strengthened the same way their leg and arm muscles do! 


All children are good, worthy of respect, and inherently joyful. Their nature is to bond with others. Playing allows children to appreciate and value each others’ contributions. They gain an appreciation of other cultures and identities. This is a great reason to include social opportunities in children’s playtimes–opportunities like the Museum. Early, inclusive experience with people from other backgrounds than their own help children develop relationships with their whole community. 


This is where it really gets into what play is NOT, and it is not adults telling children what to do. Yes, there is a measure of safety required (see: Risky Play), but even when caregivers are playing with children, they must let the children lead the way. Undirected play allows children to learn how to work in groups, to share, to negotiate, to resolve conflicts, and to learn self-advocacy skills. When children acquiesce to adult rules and concerns, they lose some of the benefits play offers them, particularly in developing creativity, leadership, and group skills. Play is often unplanned and spontaneous, brought on by the environment and company a child is with. At the Museum, we love watching kids come together and play with others they didn’t walk through the door with. Our spaces are arranged for collaboration. 

children socializing and playing together making friends in mankato

Intrinsically Motivated

While we use the term “play sports” and “play games,” that type of organization offers a different set of skills, and it’s not our focus at the Museum. Play should come from within, not from arranged, adult-led groupings with rules. Play should be flexible and adaptable for the children engaging together. Essentially, they should want to be doing what they’re doing. The reward comes from the excitement and learning that happens, not from a desire to “win.” 


Perhaps most importantly, play should be FUN! The emotional responses attached to play should always be taken seriously. Any of the above ideas about play can elicit strong reactions from children. Letting them adapt and adjust to find joy is essential to their emotional growth. Without emotional connection, whatever the children are doing is an activity, not specifically play. No fun=not play. What is considered fun differs for every child, so that freedom to explore and choose ties directly to their enjoyment. Our Museum is designed to let children go from exhibit to exhibit to find their FUN

We hope you’ll join us there really soon! 

Source material for this blog comes from: National Association for the Education of Young Children, naeyc.org

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