This post takes a look at what play is and why play is important for child development.
What is Play?
It’s something we see children doing all the time but what actually is play?
Play, put very simply, is doing something for fun. Or in the slightly more eloquent way renowned pediatrician Mary Sheridan (2011) said it: “play is the eager engagement in pleasurable physical or mental effort to obtain emotional satisfaction”. Maybe her definition wins, I don’t know, but either way, both definitions lead to Rome – it’s something we do because we want to and it’s enjoyable. Play is also something that changes with age as interests and abilities change.
With babies, it’s very adult led; we play peekaboo, do puppet shows or make their teddies dance and sing while desperately hoping for a smile or giggle.
In toddlers, play can still be adult led but is more about exploring and working out how the world around them works; sorting shapes or dropping a spoon or cup one hundred times then saying “oh” with a look that says ‘I have no idea how that could have happened’.
When children reach a preschool age (3-4), play normally becomes more child-led and socialising and imagination take much larger roles as they have a more opportunities to mix with other children and can draw on their own knowledge and life experiences.
Then, at school age, it can be even more to do with socialising, and an enjoyment of competitive play such as sports and games may develop.
Why do Children Play?
There is still much discussion about why children play, it seems scientists and philosophers have debated the question for centuries and the debate still rages on today.
Karl Groos, a philosopher, suggested that play has evolved as a safe way to learn skills needed for survival. Animals for example, play fight and practise hunting with each other. This may have been applicable to our ancestors but these days children play to practise and develop the physical and mental skills they will need later in life.
L. S. Vygotsky, in a 1967 paper, writes that play partly comes about due to the need for instant gratification. He writes that at a very young age children generally want things immediately and when they can’t get them they resort to their imagination and play. This way, they can get what they want straight away even if it only exists within their imagination. Vygotsky also stated that they use play to experiment with their mental abilities and create and solve problems of their own making. This allows them to practise and develop their cognitive skills that will become more important as they get older.
Sigmund Freud thought that play was a way for children to release their negative emotions and replace them with positive ones, a way to emotionally self-cleanse.
Moritz Lazarus believed that play was a way to replace energy lost though more strenuous activities throughout the day, a kind of recharging of the child’s batteries.
Maybe play has developed due to a combination of some or all these factors but whatever the reason, it is widely accepted that play is very important for the development of a child.
Why Play is Important
Play is one of the most important ways a young child can learn and develop. Play is so important that it has been recognised by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights as a right of every child! (There’s a UNICEF child friendly version of the rights here).
A 2001 study has even found a link between the brain size of mammals and playtime. Animals that played more and for longer periods were reported to have larger brains proportional to their bodies than those that played less.
Kenneth R. Ginsburg in 2007 wrote “play is essential to development because it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children”. That’s a lot of boxes ticked right there and it highlights some of the many varied ways in which play can be beneficial.
Now, we’re going to look at some of these aspects (and a few others) in more detail and try to understand why they are so important to a child’s development and how play can aid them.
Play is Important for Physical (fine and gross motor skills) Development
“The development of motor skills is critical for a child to move independently and to interact with his or her environment meaningfully and usefully” (Gerber et al 2010).
Paediatric physiotherapist Diana Martin (1981) stated how important play is for the physical development of children. She writes that most gross motor skills (large movements such as crawling, walking and jumping) are practised through play. She also explains why gross motor skills are so crucial because, as well as allowing the child to move and pick up what they want, they also teach spatial awareness, coordination and perception of size. These skills are essential when it comes to learning things like reading and writing. She found that regular practise of gross motor skills through play led to a noticeable improvement in the children she studied.
Fine motor skills, in contrast, are small movements such as pinching and grasping. These help with everything from writing and holding a spoon to doing up a zip. These are important life skills to have and Simner (1982) found that handwriting errors in 6-7 year old children were partly caused by a lack of fine motor skills.
With the preschool children in our school, we do a session each day entirely dedicated to development of fine motor skills. This can be anything from threading laces through cotton reels to playing with playdough (shaping, pounding, rolling) to increase strength and dexterity.
Any games or activities which involve the manipulation of small objects will help with fine motor skills, it’s all about practise, building strength and getting those fingers moving.
Play is Important for Social Development
As children grow older and start mixing with other children, play can be an extremely important way for them to develop the social skills they will need later in life.
They learn about turn-taking and sharing, being empathetic and listening to others. Wathu (2013) stated that “undirected play allows children to learn how to work in groups, share, negotiate, resolve conflicts, and learn self-advocacy skills”.
A 2007 paper showed that there could be a link between social play and brain development. In this study, Panksepp suggested that social play may help develop the frontal lobe of the brain. This is the part of the brain responsible for creativity, imagination, reflection and empathy so a developed frontal lobe will allow a child to understand their own feelings as well as those of others; important skills to have!
Another study stated that roleplaying helped boost social development as children have to read others and express themselves through both verbal and nonverbal forms of communication.
Dr Doris Bergen (2001), wrote that playing games with rules, although challenging to the child at first, may have an effect on the child’s ability to follow rules as they grow up.
There is also research to show that coaching in certain types of social play can actually make children more likely to be able to form friendship bonds with their classmates.
It’s even been found that children who have had little chance for play are more likely to show anti-social characteristics in later life (Brown, 1998).
Play is Important for Emotional Development
We can think of emotional development as the process of learning how to control and manage emotions.
Healthy emotional skills allow children to develop relationships and to manage their behaviour and emotional range.
According to Piaget (1962), play supports emotional development by providing a way to express and cope with feelings. Make-believe play allows children to create an imaginary character or plot to match their feelings. He also says that it can help them to master and cope with their emotions because they can repeatedly play out a frightening or upsetting scenario.
Erikson (1963), explained that through this kind of play they can learn how to cope with feelings such as anger or sadness in a situation they control. This can help them to be better prepared to deal with a similar situation in the future.
Play is Important for Parent-child Bonding
In an increasingly busy and hurried world, it is important for us, as loving parents, to spend as much time with our children as we can. This helps them to feel safe and secure and to know that there is someone there to look after them – what better way to spend time with our children than playing with them?
In this paper, Ginsberg stated that play is extremely important as “it offers an ideal opportunity for parents to engage fully with their children”.
The strong, positive parent-child relationships that can be fostered through these engagements, can help children develop trust between them and you, empathy, compassion and a sense of right and wrong (National Centre for Early Childhood Education, 1993).
It also gives us a chance to see the world at their level and try to remember the wonder and excitement each new discovery brings. This bonding goes both ways!
Play is Important for Mental / Cognitive Development
Sandra Walker Russ, in her book Play in Child Development and Psychotherapy, highlighted some key areas in which play can support and help develop cognitive functions:
The ability to create and tell a story in a logical chronology; to have a start and end to something with sequential steps in between.
The ability to generate different ideas and themes and think of different outcomes to a game or roleplay scenario.
The ability to ability to use ordinary objects to represent something else, for example, wooden blocks become an aeroplane.
The ability to make things up and pretend to be in a different time or space.
The ability to work things out and find favourable outcomes to any issues that may arise whilst playing.
Mathematical and Number Skills
Hurwitz (2002) explained that play is also important for developing mathematical skills. Children can develop number sense as they play with blocks and construction materials and learn to classify objects as they would when using a shape sorter. Counting is also often involved in )games (think hide and seek, or if they are playing shops – “I want three apples and four bananas please”).
Guided play in classrooms has also been found to improve literacy skills. With a teacher’s assistance children have been able to write play plans which include the theme, roles of the children and the rules of the play.
Play is Important for Sensory Development
Sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste – our 5 senses. These are our filters for the world. They shape how we perceive it and through a combination of some or all, how we interact with it.
Play, especially ‘messy’ play, can be really important for developing a child’s ability to use their senses. According to Bernadette Duffy, messy play is all about using using the senses to explore different materials without an emphasis on making or creating anything, just having fun and seeing what happens. It’s all about experimenting!
This kind of play will teach children that different materials have different properties. Water for example is fluid and can be splashed around; play dough, although solid can be moulded and manipulated and bubbles, although appearing solid, will pop at the slightest touch. They will also learn about different sounds and smells as they experiment with different materials.
Taste related play with different fruit and vegetables has even been found to increase the different foods that children were willing to try (Coulthard et al 2017), so maybe it could even get them to eat more greens!
Play is Important for Language Development
In New Directions for Child Development (1980), Jacqueline Sachs, a linguist, wrote that although children have been found to learn language without play, adult-child play “could provide an optimal environment for language and cognitive development”. She goes on to say that play is important for narrative linguistic skills such as storytelling and talking about past events. It makes sense – young children learn a lot from those around them and spending time playing with them gives adults a perfect opportunity to model correct speech.
Ratner and Bruner, observed that simple ‘give and take’ games such as peek-a-boo were important to early childhood linguistic skills as they offer a simple structure which is easy for the child to learn and within which the child can recognise when it is their turn to participate, when to follow vocal cues and when to make their own vocalisations. This sets a strong foundation for future use of language.
Play is Important for Physiological Development
LK Frank (1964) explained that, internally, play gives children’s bodies the chance to get to know themselves and improves coordination of different organs that need to figure out how to work together. He writes that play leads to “the organisation of different organ systems which allow them [children] to enlarge, reduce and regulate all bodily processes” and “these activities [play] are developing the internal communications whereby the different bodily functions are synchronised”. For example, when a child wants to reach for something the brain needs to be able to send signals through the nerves which reach the hand and tell the muscles in the fingers to pick that thing up. This is only one example but thousands of different connections need to be established and practised for the child to be able to act in the way they desire.
In a 2009 paper, Dr Doris Bergen wrote that a child’s early play appears to coincide with the development of different brain areas. She explains that a child’s play changes as certain areas of the brain become active and that this could make connections in the brain stronger. An example she gives is that ‘the major sensorimotor areas of the brain develop quickly during the first year and infants’ actions may enhance that development as they look and reach for objects, hear and make a range of sounds, and engage in exploratory physical play during that same time period’.
She also wrote that pretend play that involves a lot symbolic language (where a child pretends something is something else) may promote brain connections in the symbolic areas of the frontal lobe.
Play is Important for a Child’s Understanding of the World Around Them
Play is a great way for children to learn about and understand the world they have found themselves in. We have to remember young children are learning everything! From how to turn on a tap to what a leaf feels like.
In Play Its Role in Development and Evolution, Hutt and Bhavnani observed that when a child is presented with a new object they usually investigate it then play with it; through this play the child is learning what the object can do and what they can do to it.
In Developing a Pedagogy of Play, Wood stated that ‘play and playful forms of activity potentially lead towards increasingly complex forms of knowledge, skills and understanding’.
It has also been found that guided play is an effective way to educate children about the environment and the outside world. The authors argue that through guided play the children can learn from the experience as well as benefiting from the knowledge of the ‘guide’.
‘Risky’ play (play that is exciting but may cause some physical harm -such as playing in adventures playgrounds) has been shown to increase how good children are perceiving possible risks in their environment.
So through play children are learning about cause and effect; the relationships between objects and themselves; and how their actions can affect their environment.
Play is Important for Developing Independence and Self Confidence
LK Frank (1964) writes that children “usually regulate the time, intensity and extent of their play activities” due to how they are feeling, their energy and interest. It allows them to decide when they have had enough of something and when they are ready to try something new.
It’s important that they have an environment that encourages children to make their own choices; this helps them feel safe, valued, adventurous, competent, and confident to take the initiative (Elis and Arnold, 2000).
Canning, in 2007, agreed and stated that independent, child-led play leads to a sense of empowerment in children where they have the ability to choose what and who to play with. She also writes that play gives children a chance for self-discovery and an understanding of who they are – “it [play] acts as a validation of self-portrayal and the development of uniqueness.”
Practise Makes Perfect
Lawrence K Frank (1964) wrote that play is an opportunity for children to “exercise their varied capabilities” in a way that is enjoyable and rewarding. He explains that play is a great way for children to experiment with things such as hitting, grasping and crawling that can’t be taught by us, their parents and carers. It is also a way for them to practise and consolidate all the new skills they are learning all the time.
What can we do help our children learn through play?
So then, what can we do with our children to encourage play and aid the development which comes hand in hand with it? I’m mainly going to be focusing on children up to preschool age here as they’re the ones that will probably need the most adult support.
Well firstly, ensure that your child has the time and space to play. Set up a safe environment where they can explore and have a wide selection of toys and activities for them to use. Children find joy in all sorts of things, they don’t need the fanciest, most expensive new toys, there are many toys we can make ourselves that would cost us next to nothing (I’ll share some ideas I have come across in a future post).
It’s important to vary the activities available so that they don’t get bored with any one thing. Their attention spans are still growing so if they get bored with something and want to move on that’s fine but if they are focused allow them the time to play and give them lots of encouragement. Our little boy will really focus on trying to stack blocks and it’s great to see him trying so hard. We make sure he gets a big round of applause when he does it and he beams up at us and seems really proud of himself.
Also, make sure that they get to play in lots of different places. Play at home is great as you have everything you need and know that it’s safe but getting outside and letting them run around, or going to the park/beach etc. is important. As well as giving them a chance to stretch their legs and develop their gross motor skills, it also gives them a chance to explore nature and learn more about the world around them.
Getting involved yourself is also great as you can pass on your knowledge and model what to do; how to sort shapes, how to kick your legs on a swing, or build the block tower higher; it is also brilliant for bonding (as previously mentioned) but at the same time, it is important to ensure that we allow them the chance to play independently as well. This will let them follow their natural curiosity and practise and consolidate all the skills that they can only learn on their own.
Well, that’s my first post! I hope you found a bit/half/all of it interesting and informative. Please share if you did (it would really help me) and comment below if you have any feedback or questions. Remember though, I am not an expert on child education and development. I have drawn upon my own knowledge, scoured the internet and read some scientific papers and books but I am learning as I go and just want to share what I find along the way so that we can all try to ensure our children develop as best they possibly can!
Let’s nurture those neurons!
References and further reading
- All about… messy play
- Building academic success on social and emotional learning: What does the research say?
- All about… messy play
- Building academic success on social and emotional learning: What does the research say?Can PLAY Diminish ADHD and Facilitate the Construction of the Social Brain?
- Child and Development: The Importance of Play
- Children’s empowerment in play
- Coaching children in social skills for friendship making
- Developing a Pedagogy of Play
- Developmental Milestones: Motor Development
- Do big-brained animals play more? Comparative analyses of play and relative brain size in mammals.
- Games, social exchange and the acquisition of language
- Influence of play on social and emotional development of pre-school children in Kyangwithya zone, Kitui County
- Play and Brain Development as Complementary Nonlinear Dynamic (Chaotic/Complex) Systems
- Play and its role in the Mental Development of the Child
- Play in Child Development and Psychotherapy
- Play in Early Childhood: From Birth to Six Years
- Play Its Role in Development and Evolution
- Play Under Siege
- Play with your food! Sensory play is associated with tasting of fruits and vegetables in preschool children
- Printing Errors in Kindergarten and the Prediction of Academic Performance
- Risky-play at school. Facilitating risk perception and competence in young children
- The educator’s guide to emotional intelligence and academic achievement: Social-emotional learning in the classroom
- The importance of play in a child’s early development
- The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds
- The Play of Animals
- The role of adult-child play in language development
- The Role of Play in Child Development
- To Be Successful-Let Them Play
- Toward a Model for Early Childhood Environmental Education: Foregrounding, Developing, and Connecting Knowledge Through Play-Based Learning