Why Play is so Important!

Although sometimes seen by parents or even educators as a “waste of time”, 21st century scholars consider that “free-play” (Bruce, T., 2006) has significant short and long term benefits for children, leading to a healthy psychical and emotional development and better understanding of the world (Bjorklung & Pellegrini in Papalia, Olds & Feldman, 2010). This article will cover an explanation of the concept of play, from different perspectives, together with its characteristics and types, taking into account the latest findings in the child development literature on the impact and benefits of play. I will also examine how play facilitates and is impacted by the child’s physical, intellectual, linguistic, emotional and social development during the first six years of life and how adults can support play.

Drawing from the works of Moyles (2005), Bruce (2006), Mcleod-Brudenell and Kay (2008), MCI (undated), Goldschmeid & Jackson (2009) and Wood & Attfield (2005), play is a freely chosen process in which children engage with their already acquired knowledge, values and skills, and which has as end result, although not direct purpose, the development or refinement of further lifelong physical, socio-emotional and cognitive skills. It is a natural inclination (Moyles, 2005), a creative attitude in which the child attains a degree of independence supported by the representations of his inner and outer worlds (Wood & Attfield, 2005).

There are several characteristics of play. First of all, play is child chosen and spontaneous (Wood & Attfield, 2005). It unfolds in a creative manner and it can stop as unexpectedly as it began. Adults may come with ideas of play but a child will only accept what will resonate with his/her inner needs or passions. So another characteristic is that play is an intrinsically motivated process (Bruce, 2006).

During play, children invent and pretend. They use the events and behaviours they have observed to experiment different types of behaviours and outcomes, attitudes and family or social roles (Bruce, 2006). They project themselves in the future, as teacher or doctors, or mothers or fathers, adopting the behaviours of their role models. Play focuses on the process, not the product (Wood & Attfield, 2005), and in this process it is them who have control over their actions and decisions. Children use play to repeat or try–out recent learning, and to create or consolidate friendships (Mcleod-Brudenell and Kay, 2008). When engaged in free-play, children are deeply concentrating and can hardly be distracted from their learning. This is why the best plays are never time-constrained. Ultimately, play is a fun process, it generates positive emotions and it brings balance. This is why play helps children cope with difficult events in their lives (MCI, undated).

There are different types of play identified by researchers. Moyles (2005) distinguishes between physical play (wrestling, hide and seek), object play (construction or play with cars) and pretence play (mother and father, princess pretend). Piaget (in Moyles, 2005) defined: sensorimotor play (in the first year of life, characterised by repetitive muscle movement and simple object play), symbolic play (focuses on pretend, also with objects or imaginary objects) and games play with rules (such as football). In addition, Smilansky (in Moyles, 2005), includes constructive play defined as object play (construction with geometrical shapes or puzzles). Hutt (in Goldschmeid & Jackson, 2009) describes epistemic play, within which children learn and explore the world and its properties (such as mud play). Parten (in MCI, undated), categorised play as: solitary play (such as riding a tricycle), parallel play (when a child plays alongside other children, each absorbed in his/her own activity), associative play (together with other children, following his/her own play agenda, for example a pretend riders play, where each child invents what his/her character would say) and co-operative play (children establish the rules and roles together). Goldschmeid & Jackson, (2009) researched on heuristic play, a type of exploratory play with objects without the direct intervention of the adult. Fantasy play is a highly imaginative play during which children act on their own, using real or imaginative objects (Bruner in Moyles, 2005). It develops creativity, language and fine motor skills and can become socio – dramatic play if it is done in cooperation with other children. During socio–dramatic play children consciously act out social interactions by means of symbolic representations; It counts among its benefits concentration, development of cooperative skills, creativity, projection of social or family roles, development of abstract thought and self-esteem (Kitson in Moyles, 2005).

Physical activity play involves a large body activity, such as running, climbing and other large body or large muscle activity. This type of play includes: “rhythmic stereotypes” (Smith in Moyles, 2005), gross motor movement during the child’s first months without any apparent function, “exercise play” (Smith in Moyles, 2005), gross locomotor movement, such as running and climbing in the context of play and “rough-and-tumble play”, which involves wrestling, grappling, kicking, tumbling, rolling on the ground or chasing; Physical play has numerous benefits: it helps maintain friendships and develop skills of emotional control, enhances the physical training of muscles, strength and endurance. Studies (Pellegrini & Davies in Moyles, 2005) show that exercise play in break times improves concentration during class activities. Some other types of play are communication play, such as mime, play acting or poetry and deep play, which allows the child to meet risky or potentially life-threatening experiences, to develop survival skills and conquer fear (Macleod-Brudenell & Kay, 2008).

In order to have a clearer picture of how play impacts and is impacted by the holistic development of the child in the first six years of age, we shall first take a closer look at the development processes that occur from birth to three years. Goldschmeid & Jackson (2009) describe how a baby’s first toy is the body of the caring adult. Before the age of 6 months, the baby can move his/her hand and grab his/her carer’s fingers, hair or certain surrounding objects. Eye – hand – mouth coordination marks a big step in his/ her development; as s/he is able to sit his/her universe unveils: objects, persons and movements. Before one year of age, the baby can clearly observe differences between different sets of objects and will begin imitating (Papalia, Olds & Feldman, 2010). 

Play at this stage is physical, rhythmic stereotypes occur. Gradually, the development of sucking, mouthing and handling allow epistemic and heuristic play to take place, allowing the baby to find out details about the smell, taste, feel and weight of a certain material. These types of play foster further development, such as decision making, concentration and mobility. The baby will recognize sounds heard in the womb and gradually will start experimenting with uttering sounds of language, not yet producing any recognizable words (Papalia, Olds & Feldman, 2010). During the first year of age, s/he will be able to live the basic emotions: joy, surprise, sadness, disgust and fury (Papalia, Olds & Feldman, 2010). Socially, the baby starts to trust in the main caregiver and develops a certain type of “attachment” (Bowlby in MCI, undated), an enduring emotional bond between him/her and the main caregiver. Parallel play enables babies to communicate with other babies through sounds, movements or facial expressions thus developing inter-personal skills.

During the second and third year, the baby will grow in height, allowing construction play to take place. Two and three year olds are able to build cube towers, climb stairs, run or jump. This opens a window of physical and exercise play opportunities. At this stage cognitive development impacts the intellectual play of the child, as s/he will be able to count, differentiate colours, understand consequences of actions. I have often watched children at this age being engaged in fantasy play: fishing with a stick, eating off leaves which served as plates, pretending to read newspapers or walking babies in carriages. The development of language enables the child to use new words and communicate with adults and children, therefore leaving an open door to simple communication play: songs with gestures, reading of poetry and cards games. In turn, this type of play fosters the development of vocabulary, pronunciation and the construction of sentences. Socially, two to three years old have an increasing need of independence. Solitary and parallel play remain the most preferred types of play.

Now that we have seen how development and play are interconnected during the first three years of the child, let us take a look of how they unfold from the age of three to six years old.
Physically, fine motor skills refine and writing skills develop. Now the child can pour liquids, eat with cutlery or get dressed on his own. S/he can jump or change running or walking directions and engage in rough-and-tumble play. This new degree of physical competence enriches the fantasy play, which becomes socio-dramatic play, as it is often done together with other children. I have seen children pretending to be animals, playing doctors performing precise eye or hand operations, going shopping with the families (composed of friends in the roles of children, husband or wives) and carrying full baskets. Their cognitive development allowed them to create intricate stories, engulfing abstract concepts or to thoroughly plan their play. Two boys were once building a spaceship, and planning what materials to use. They applied knowledge and used specific words such as “mission”, “oxygen” or “engine”. This was possible because of their language development. Between three and six, children know more than 20.000 words and can easily build short stories, and this is clearly reflected in their play (Papalia, Olds & Feldman, 2010). Emotionally, children at this age are able to recognize his/her feelings and the feelings of others (no longer ego-centric). They should be able to recognize when other children are playful or not. “Segregation” (Moyles, 2005) naturally happens as children spend more time in groups of similar sex. Socially, leadership and followership skills are developed, both with equal importance for the later adult (Bruce, 2006).

So what is the role of the adult in this natural development process? One of the most important roles of the adults relate to creating the necessary space, ensuring its safety and allowing independence and freedom for the child to explore it. All outdoor and indoor spaces should reflect the learning and development needs of the child, and the adult must make sure the equipment serves this purpose. Adults should supervise and observe the child and track his/her development, organize the objects and groups if the children are under three and give enough time for proper exploration and for putting the materials back as the session finishes. 

During heuristic play, the only intervention which could aid is to stop a child who will bother others, by suggesting him/her a new object and facilitating his/her interaction with it. Adults involvement in certain types of play such as socio-dramatic play can enhance the child’s learning by focusing his/her attention and challenging the process. The adult should act as a behavioural model and help children differentiate between reality and fiction. An adult can subtly structure the learning in play without significantly reducing the child’s ownership (Moyles, 2005). Lindon (2002, pp. 5) argues that: “children cannot benefit from their play if adults overplan and over-supervise the daily events of any setting or the family home”; therefore, adults should respect the child and his/her play agenda and understand which the right moment to intervene is.

Play is one of the most important processes which need to occur unhindered from infancy for the holistic development of the young child. It comes in different types and contexts and it affects and it is affected by each area of development: physical, cognitive, social, emotional and linguistic. It evolves together with the development of the child and changes according to his/her needs. Adults can facilitate this process by ensuring a safe and stimulating environment and by knowing when to intervene or not. All children should be able to experience play equally, and real alarm signals should be addressed when a child does not engage in play!

Source of the images:

  1. http://www.aspenhillclub.com/Portals/252655/images/kids-playing.jpg
  2. http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-4Ol3rEimCWY/T7EQwepJEFI/AAAAAAAAA_0/yLU-M-SYe_M/s1600/AAA_7160.jpg
  3. http://theimaginationtree.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/Roads-and-construction-site-in-play-dough.jpg
  4. http://www.myantelopevalley.com/media/2013080681807boyswrestling.jpg
  5. http://www.chilboltonpreschool.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/role-play.jpg
  6. http://studio3music.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/10/fantasy-play.jpg
  7. http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-oXfIt-jfK2Q/TbIHgpQ8s0I/AAAAAAAACfw/alIzSi9xwzA/s1600/IMG_6433.JPG


  • Bruce, T. (2006 reprint) Developing Learning in Early Childhood London: Sage
  • Elkind, D., (2009), Learning from play Montessori International, (Issue 91, April/June) pp 12 – 13
  • Fass, P. S., (2004), Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood In History and Society New York: Macmillan Reference USA
  • Goldschmeid, E. & Jackson, S. (2009 reprint) People Under Three London: Routledge
  • Lillard, P.P, (1972),  Montessori, a Modern Approach  New York: Schocken Books
  • Lindon, J., (2002), Factsheet: What is play [online] National Children’s Bureau: London, available online from: http://www.somerset.gov.uk/irj/go/km/docs/CouncilDocuments/SCC/Documents/CYP/NCB%20What%20is%20Play.pdf, date accessed (2.07.2013)
  • Macleod-Brudenell, I, &  Kay, J. (2008, Second Edition) Advanced Early Years for Foundation Degrees & Level   4/5  Harlow: Heinemann  
  • Montessori Centre International (undated) Module 2 Child Development London: MCI
  • Morris-Coole, S., (2009), The Serious Business of Play Montessori International, (Issue 91, April/June)
  • Moyles, J. (2005 2nd Edition) The Excellence of Play Maidenhead: Open University Press
  • Nutbrown, C. & Clough, P. (2006) Inclusion in the Early Years London: Sage
  • Papalia D. E., Wendkos-Olds S. & Duskin-Feldman, R., Human Development, (2010, 11th ed.), Bucharest: Editura Trei
  • Wood, E. & Attfield, J. (2005 2nd Edition) Play, Learning and the Early Childhood Curriculum London: Paul   Chapman Publishing

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thank you for reading this post! Please make sure your comment enriches everyone's learning!