The Importance of Childhood Play
Play is a natural part and necessary component of life for animals. It serves many important functions in children and even in adults, including stress reduction opportunities for socialization, outlets for aggression, personal growth and expression, and diversion from the more serious pursuits of life. (Weston & Weston, 1996).
Play is the work of childhood and a child's natural language. Some describe play as serving as a vehicle for communicating thoughts too confusing to put in words, feelings too amorphous to describe, with the social rules to subtle to explain (Weston & Weston, 1996). Play does help children develop cognitively. It also helps them figure out the world. Play also opens the mind up to creativity. Other advantages of play includes the opportunity to develop character and social competencies, improve communication and language, support emotional intelligence, the ongoing process of acquiring skills and practicing and refining them. Play provides the potential for learning, when it is carefully structured for children.
Early Childhood Play Behavior
At every age, children are likely to spend at least some of their time playing alone, a pattern know as solitary play. Children first begin to show some positive interest in playing with others, however, as early as six months of age. By 14 to 18 months, we begin to see two or more children playing with toys, sometimes cooperating together, but more often simply playing side by side with different toys, called parallel play. About at 18 months, we begin to see associative play in which toddlers pursue their own activities, but also engage in spontaneous, though short-lived, social interactions. By three or four, children begin to engage in cooperative play, a pattern in which several children work together to accomplish a goal. Cooperative play can be either constructive or symbolic.
Types of Play Behaviors as Correlated with Cognitive Development
Also called functional play.
At about one year, the child spends most of her playtime exploring and manipulating objects using all of the sensorimotor schemes in her repertoire. Examples: rolling a ball or pulling a pull toy.
Constructive Play: By age two or so, children also begin to use objects to build or construct things. This type of play takes up nearly half of their play between ages three and six. Piaget hypothesized that this kind of play is the foundation on which children build their understanding of the rules that govern physical reality.
First Pretend Play: Piaget believed that pretend play was an important indicator of a child's capacity to use symbols. Pretend play begins when children use a toy to represent a real object, such as using a toy spoon or a toy comb as they would a real spoon or comb. Typically between 15 and 21 months, the recipient of the pretend action becomes another person or a toy, most often a doll.
Substitute Pretend Play: Between two and three years of age, children begin to use objects to stand for something altogether different, such as using a carrot and a stick as an imaginary violin and bow.
Sociodramatic Play: Also called imaginative play. Somewhere in the preschool years, children also begin to play parts or take roles and they may have imaginary companions.
Rule-governed Play: By age five or six, children begin to prefer rule-governed pretending and formal games. Piaget suggested that this preference for rule-governed play indicates that they are about to make the transition to the next stage of cognitive development, concrete operations, in which they will acquire an understanding of rules.
Developmental Skills Acquired
As indicated, play is related to cognitive development. It also is related to the development of social skills, a set of behaviors that lead to being accepted as a play partner or friend by others. Many researchers have focused on the social skill of group entry. Children who are skilled in group entry spend time observing others to find out what they are doing and then they try to become part of it. Children who have poor group-entry skills try to gain acceptance through aggressive behavior or by interrupting the group. Children with poor group entry skills are often rejected by peers, which, in turn, is an important factor in future social development. According to recent studies, there appear to be sex differences in the reasons for and consequences of poor group-entry skills.
Three-year-old girls with poorly developed group-entry skills spent more time in parallel play than in cooperative play than did girls who were skilled in group entry. The unskilled girls were at risk for future developmental problems because age-appropriate play experience in the preschool years is related to social development later.
Three-year-old boys who possessed poor group entry skills tended to be aggressive and were often actively rejected by peers. They typically responded to rejection by becoming even more aggressive and disruptive. This pattern may place them at risk for developing an internal working model of relationships that includes aggressive behavior and, as a result, leads them to routinely respond aggressively to others in social situations.
Saenz, Karen P. (2002). Instructor's Manual for Bee and Boyd. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, pp. 124 & 152.
Weston, Denise and Mark Weston. (1996) Playground Therapy. Energy Times, September 1996.
Related Learning Links
An interesting portal on the importance of play,with many online play activities for young people, students and playful adults. Sponsored by the Lemelson Center forthe Study of Invention and Innovation at the Smithsonian Museum of American History.
Give examples of each type of play outlined above.
Describe how play can contribute to children's physical, intellectual, emotional, and social development.
Specify what types of play you would structure or most encourage in your own children, and why. Provide examples.
Specify what types of play you would discourage in your own children and why.