It is easy to underestimate the value of play. As adults, our “play” takes place during leisure time and we see it as fun and lighthearted. We regard it as recreational, with no practical purpose, other than unwinding, having fun, or spending time with friends. It nurtures us, but we don’t regard it as serious. Since it has this lightness for us, we often find it hard to appreciate that play has an enormously important role in the lives of children.
Play is the natural occupation of children. It engages them and captivates them, filling many hours of their day. It’s hard not to envy the sheer joy of playing and being so happily engrossed, yet in a way this is also children’s “work.” Play promotes development and well-being in a staggering number of ways.
At play, children are very much engaged, deeply engrossed in their experiences. Play has many, many functions, touching on all aspects of development. Through play, children try out and practice skills in an arena where there are no significant consequences. Play provides a space for problem solving, imagining and creating solutions to challenges or finding ways of using materials in the real world as props in a pretend world. Play offers a space to gradually build social skills of negotiating, compromising, sharing, collaborating, as well as empathizing and regulating one’s own behavior and emotions. Play happens in environments that allow children to test, practice and build physical skills of all sorts.
For play to have its powerful effects, it needs to be largely child directed. In general, it needs to be created, managed and maintained by the players, and not by adults. In children’s play, adults are in the background, a potential resource if something is needed.
Today, there are many opportunities for children to participate in organized events and classes where they can find out about such culturally valued activities as soccer, softball, dance, swimming and gymnastics; or crafting, painting, and using computers. There are story hours and musical circles. Each of these are adult organized and adult directed. While these activities do introduce children to possibilities, help them discover their passions and skills, and provide them with a chance to interact with peers, they also tend to eclipse time for free play.
The next two posts are a two-part overview presenting the highlights of young children’s play and how it nurtures many aspects of development in early childhood. The first describes the types of social play young children engage in, and the second summarizes key ways play supports cognitive, social and emotional development.