Father-child play: A systematic review of its frequency, characteristics and potential impact on children’s development

Parent-child play interactions in the first years of life are linked to more positive cognitive and socio-emotional outcomes for children. The vast majority of previous research has focussed on mother-infant play interactions, but the potential positive role of fathers’ early involvement in children’s lives is being increasingly recognised, with higher levels of caregiving by fathers in many countries. To characterise the nature and potential impact of father-child play we undertook a systematic review of the published literature in psychological and educational databases up until 2018. We focussed on studies addressing the frequency and characteristics of fathers’ play with children (aged 0–3 years), and the potential impact on children’s development. We screened 436 articles, yielding 78 papers addressing the questions of interest. There are 3 key findings. First, fathers spend a significant proportion of their time with their children engaging in playful interactions, often in the form of physical play such as rough and tumble. Second, whilst findings are mixed, on balance the evidence suggests that fathers’ play frequency increases from infancy to preschool age with a subsequent decline in play as children reach early- middle childhood. Third, studies investigating links between fathers’ play and child outcomes suggest that fathers’ play in the early years can positively contribute to children’s social, emotional and cognitive outcomes. This potential for substantial benefit for children provides a clear imperative for policy makers and practitioners to facilitate and support fathers, as well as mothers, in developing more positive and playful interactions with their infants.

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