Kids love to play.
We love to watch them play.
Sometimes we like to join in their play.
But do we understand just how important play is for kids?
Or do we tend to see it as a diversion, an amusement separate from the serious business of life and learning? Perhaps you, or someone you know, has made comments such as ‘Oh they’re just playing.’
Research suggests that free or spontaneous play is very important for children’s growth and development. Children learn about the world, themselves, and one another through unstructured play experiences (Education Hub, 2023).
This discussion considers expert views about the importance of play for children’s learning.
Theories and research about play are complex and extensive, exploring the concept from different perspectives. This discussion is a general overview of some of this literature.
What is play?
In everyday conversation, we use the term ‘play’ to describe a wide variety of activities and experiences. We talk about playing sport, or playing board games and video games, or role-playing and pretend play. The word play means many different things to many different people.
Psychologists, play scholars and educators are more specific about what play is. They identify a number of characteristics that differentiate play from other more structured and organised activities. These characteristics include:
- Play is universal. Children have an inherent desire and capacity to play. They know instinctively how to play.
- Play is spontaneous and voluntary. Children chose to participate – or not. They join in when they feel like it, and drop out when they have had enough
- Play is not directed by adults or regulated by externally imposed rules. Children structure and direct their play as it develops. Activities are often made up on the spot. There is no right or wrong way to play.
- Play is about participation rather than outcomes. It is not about competing and winning but about interacting and having fun.
- Play involves cognitive, physical, social, and emotional skills
- Play can be solitary or a group activity.
Play is spontaneous, unpredictable, controlled by the players, and fun.
But is it also a waste of time?
Is play a waste of time?
In our adult world, we often emphasise hard work. We focus on setting and achieving our goals and fulfilling our responsibilities. Unless they contribute to our goals and priorities, we may view play at best as a healthy break, at worst as a complete waste of time. If we view children’s play from an adult’s perspective, we may consider organised activities such as sport to be useful, but view spontaneous play as a waste of time. It is different in the child’s world.
In a child’s life, play is not considered to be a waste of time. For several decades research has been highlighting the benefits of children’s play. According to this research, unstructured play is considered to be a universal activity that is integral for the physical, social, cognitive and emotional well-being of children. Play is important for promoting healthy child development while facilitating children’s learning.
So, according to research, unstructured play activities are not a waste of time. How, specifically does play contribute to a child’s development?
The value of play
Play helps children develop and fine-tune their physical, social, cognitive and emotional abilities and skills
Physical activities such as running, jumping, climbing, dancing or playing with objects helps children to develop strength, agility, co-ordination and balance.
Play can be solitary, particularly for younger children. Play may also be a group activity through which children learn the skills for social interaction. They develop social skills such as sharing, cooperating, taking turns.
Play promotes cognitive skills and development in children. Both individual and group play develop skills such as language, critical thinking, reasoning, remembering, learning and paying attention.
Play can help children to explore and understand their own feelings and those of others. Through imaginative play, they come to develop a sense of self and their world. Role play enables them to understand other perspectives.
Play experiences generally incorporate several of these areas of learning and development.
A group of kids kicking around a blow up ball will be practicing their gross motor skills. At the same time, as each child plays, the group interacts. They will be learning social skills such as teamwork and cooperation. They will be using their cognitive skills as they develop strategies to move the ball to and around other players.
Children cooperating in building a home made obstacle course from cardboard cartons are developing their coordination and fine motor skills while also learning about negotiation, cooperation, sharing and taking turns.
Play lets children practice and extend skills that they learn in more structured settings. They might practice skills they have learnt during basketball training. However, since there are no external rules in free play, they might try things not encouraged at formal training such as standing with their back to the hoop and trying for a three pointer, or they using the basketball as a soccer ball.
So play is a universal activity that is important for children’s physical, social, cognitive and emotional development.
Ages and stages of play
The type of play children engage in changes from infancy through early childhood education to adolescence. Play for infants and babies involves simple, repetitive activities and interactions. These become more diverse and complex as the child grows.
Babies and infants
Play at this stage is frequently a solitary activity. Babies are becoming aware of, and beginning to explore the world around them. They do this with repetitive activities such as putting their hands in and out of their mouth, or patting a mobile. Such activities, while simple, are developing physical coordination and cognitive skills such as concentration. Play items can be as simple as spoons, plastic containers and, scrunched up paper. Socially, babies seek to engage others t simple interactions like smiling, blowing raspberries and peek-a-boo. They are seeking responses such as smiles and laughing. This is a time when strong parent child bonds can begin to develop.
Toddlers are becoming more physically active. They enjoy running, jumping and climbing. They are also becoming aware that others also play. They may take on the role of an interested onlooker watching their peers play. They often play alongside other toddlers but may not initiate interaction. Role-playing is also an element of toddler play as they start to imitate adults doing housework, fixing things or using the phone. Toddlers don’t need many toys. Things such as simple jigsaw puzzles, matching games, blocks and common household objects are often utilised as playthings.
During the preschool years, children move from playing alongside other children to engage in more interactive, mutual play. At the same time, they starting to assert their independence. They will often insist on doing things for themselves. They don’t want help building the tower! They are developing skills such as physical coordination, communication, sharing, problem solving. They are becoming more effective in articulating their needs.
School age children are becoming increasingly independent while actively participating in. Interactive, cooperative play with peers.
Helping your kids to play
While free play activities are initiated and controlled by kids, it doesn’t mean that parents can’t contribute. Parents can actively encourage their children to play. They can provide safe playing environments where kids can explore, challenge themselves and find out their limits.
Parents can even join in their kids play. They do need to ensure that they are participating rather than controlling or competing. This can foster strong parent child bonds.
Play is important for children’s learning and development. Kids learn and fine-tune their physical, social, and emotional abilities and skills through play. It is not a waste of time.
Play is spontaneous, unpredictable, controlled by the players, and fun.
Given the importance of play, perhaps we should all make time to play a bit more.
The Education Hub (2023), What is Play and Why is it Important for Development? https://theeducationhub.org.nz/what-is-play-and-why-is-it-important-for-learning/
XPlay Scotland (2023), The Power of Play; https://www.playscotland.org/learn/what-is-play/the-power-of-play/
Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority (2023) The Importance of Play in Children’s Learning and Development. https://www.startingblocks.gov.au/