We know that play is fun but do we also realise that play is considered to be essential for a child’s learning and development? A child learns about the world, themselves, and one another through unstructured play experiences (Education Hub, 2023).
Play is considered so important for child development that the United Nations identifies it as a child’s right.
This discussion considers expert views about the importance of play for a child’s learning and development. It highlights how play promotes learning and creativity.
It is a general overview of some of the literature.
What is Play?
We talk about play a lot but often have different ideas about what it is. In everyday conversation the term is used to describe a broad range of behaviours that sometimes include sport, board games or other recreational activities and sometimes not. The boundaries between play and these activities is blurred and often based on personal ideas and beliefs.
Researchers, theorists and educators are more specific about identifying play activities. While they do not use one single definition of play, there is broad agreement within the academic and professional community about characteristics that distinguish play from other activities and behaviours. While concepts and terms can vary, experts view play as generally being:
Imaginative and Creative
Play is an open ended activity where children engage in role playing and imaginative play and/or use familiar materials in new or unusual ways. Creative play lets them explore many different roles and experiences.
Voluntary, Self-Chosen and Self-Directed
Children decide when, what and how to play. They participate because they want to, not because they have been told to. Rather than complying with externally imposed rules, children create the structure and rules of their play. They join in when they feel like it, and drop out when they have had enough.
Process driven and intrinsically motivated
Playing is about participation rather than outcomes. It is not about competing and winning. Children play for the sheer satisfaction of doing it.
Children can become completely focused on their play activity. They can even lose awareness of their surroundings. For example, a child may be so absorbed in building towers with blocks that they are unaware of other children playing alongside them.
Fluid, spontaneous and unscripted:
Play can be planned or it can be completely spontaneous. Activities can be modified on impulse. There is no right or wrong way to play.
Play is spontaneous, unpredictable, controlled by the players, and fun.
This type of play may sometimes be referred to as open-ended, free and/or creative (Education Hub, 2023; Sinclair, 2023; XPlay Scotland, 2023).
But why is it important?
Play for Learning and Creativity
Research has identified that, creative, unstructured play is central to children’s learning and development. It enables them to explore and develop understandings about their world and themselves. It also provides children with the opportunity to practice and extend skills that they learn in more structured settings. Children develop and fine-tune their physical, social, cognitive and emotional abilities and skills through creative play.
Physical play involving repetition of basic skills such as running, jumping or climbing helps children to develop strength, agility, co-ordination and balance.
Play can be solitary, or it can be a group activity. Group play gives children opportunities to learn social skills such as sharing, cooperating, taking turns.
Play promotes cognitive skills in children such as communication skills, language, critical thinking, remembering, and paying attention.
Play helps children to explore and understand feelings. Through imaginative play they are able to express and cope with their feelings without needing to conform to adult expectations. They control the experience and express themselves through their imagination.
Creative play incorporates these areas of learning and development.
We often associate creativity with arts, crafts and culture. However creativity is not just restricted to artistic endeavour. Creativity is about thinking outside the box. It is about moving beyond accepted ways of thinking and acting. It is about exploring new and original ideas, strategies and opportunities.
Without creativity, there is simply one view of the world and no hope for the unusual and never-been-done-before. It is a vitally important facet to human behaviour and development (Sinclair, 2023).
Creativity is relevant, even essential to much human life – including science and technology. We all have the potential to be creative. In fact we all demonstrate creativity in our daily lives plan. We are being creative when finding ways to encourage children to eat vegetables, working out different routes to avoid traffic congestion or planning the flower garden
Creative play is how children learn to perceive the world and understand their place in it. When getting involved with creative play in the early years, young children can gain basic problem-solving skills. Creative play boosts their intellectual development by improving their cognitive skills whilst allowing them to pay attention, process how things work, and analyse why it works
Since children control the imaginary scenarios they create, they are able to ask questions, be curious, explore and experiment without many of the externally imposed rules and boundaries of daily life. With creative and imaginary play, children can be anyone or anything, any time or any place. They can re-enact what they have heard, seen or experienced in their everyday life or they can create scenarios from their imagination. They can try on lots of different roles.
The experiences, knowledge and representations they explore during help children to understand the world and their place in it.
As they grow, children develop increasingly sophisticated social, physical emotional and cognitive skills. Their play becomes increasingly complex. Infants and babies participate in simple, repetitive activities and interactions such as ‘peek-a-boo’. Toddlers engage in exploratory and social play involving the repetition of particular physical actions such as repeatedly jumping off a step, and bouncing or throwing balls. Older youngsters begin to engage in social and interactive play, that involves cooperation between two or more participants.
Nurturing their creativity promotes only intellectual physical, social and emotional development. Creative development is a fundamental part of physical and mental growth in a developing child.
Supporting creativity through play
In our increasingly organised and structured societies, children need plenty of opportunities for creative thinking and play. While these activities may be initiated and controlled by children, it doesn’t mean that parents can’t support and contribute. Parents and caregivers 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 and carers can even join in their kids play – participating rather than controlling or competing. Independence and control are important components in the creative process.
Play is fun. It is also essential for child development. Through creative play, children develop physical, cognitive, social and emotional skills as they explore and learn about their world and the opportunities available to them.
Children need time to be free, and to explore, investigate, experiment and create in order to learn about the world around them in an unstructured way.
Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority (2023) The Importance of Play in Children’s Learning and Development. https://www.startingblocks.gov.au/
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/
Sinclair, M. (2023), Encouraging Creativity Through Play, Genius of Play; https://thegeniusofplay.org/genius/expert-advice/articles/genius-of-play-encouraging-creativity-through-play.aspx
XPlay Scotland (2023), The Power of Play; https://www.playscotland.org/learn/what-is-play/the-power-of-play/
United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) Article 31