Sitting on a park bench and watching children running, swinging, building sand structures or throwing a ball to one another, I sometimes find myself envying their ability to engage wholeheartedly in their play. These children seem so carefree and happy that I find myself wishing for the long forgotten days when I could “just play.”
As a child, I was totally unaware of all that I was learning through my play experiences. Little did I know that play is so important that The United Nations High Commission for Human Rights recognizes play as “the right of every child.” I “just played” because it was fun!
So what were you and I gaining when we were “just playing?” Essentially, we were acquiring the abilities, skills, and interests that make us who we are today.
Play is and always has been an important factor in enabling each individual to develop to his or her optimum potential. Play experiences are essential to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth. Through play a child uses his creativity while developing his imagination, dexterity, physical, cognitive, and emotional strength.
Play is crucial to healthy brain development. A child learns to control his body and movements through active gross and fine motor play. The skills developed through this type of play are the same skills needed for reading and writing. A child learns to communicate and express himself through play experiences. Play provides a child with the opportunity to experiment and have fun with language. A child can use play to express his feelings. Sociodramatic play gives a child a format in which to act out relationships and work through negative feelings. Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, describes play as the way in which a child grows, learns, and heals. Play provides a powerful way for a child to work through feelings resulting from a traumatic experience. A child can be encouraged to identify fears and anxieties through play. Play can be an outlet for a child to work through minor problems from day to day and restore his sense of control in his world. One of the most potent means of expression for a child is play.continued on next page
Play begins at a very young age as an infant engages and interacts in the world around him using sensory exploration. He uses his senses to explore objects (and people) in the environment using sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. Sensory exploration play is followed by playing with objects and people in a functional manner. Pushing a button to make Elmo® giggle or touching grandpa on the nose to make him stick out his tongue, are examples of functional play. An action causes a reaction, sometimes termed as cause and effect. This is followed by combining objects in play such as putting in/taking out objects from containers. As the adults in a child’s environment participate in and expand on these play schemes, the child begins to imitate the adult actions. Constructive play begins when a child starts to sort and build with various objects.
At first toys and materials are used in simple ways, moving to more complex. A child who was once building and knocking down simple towers begins to build elaborate castles… that might even have a dragon living in the backyard! Thus begins pretend play. A child begins to create play experiences in which objects take on new purposes. Block structures become castles, cardboard boxes become cars, and stuffed animals become real and need to have check-ups at the vet’s office. When a child is given the opportunity to direct his own play, he practices decision-making skills, moves at his own pace, discovers his own areas of interest, and ultimately engages fully in the passions he wishes to pursue.
The authors of the book, Child Development: Its Nature and Course, describe play as a child’s social workshop. Play is the laboratory in which the child learns new social skills and practices social behaviors and concepts. He tries out new roles while expanding his understanding of his purpose and developing a sense of self. Social play follows a developmental path. A child begins as a solitary player. He may be in a room with other children, but he is playing alone and not paying attention to others. As this child grows, he becomes a parallel player. He plays next to or side by side with another child. The child and his play partner don’t appear to even look at one another, but pick up vast amounts of play behavior from each other. To quote Dr. Brazelton, “parallel players seem to absorb play patterns through peripheral vision.” As a child’s play patterns continue to develop, he becomes an associative player. He and another child may build the same thing with blocks and talk with one another as they build, but they do not work together. Cooperative play occurs when these two children begin to work together to create something with the blocks. During cooperative play, one can expect to hear sharing of ideas, disagreement, negotiation, and attempts to problem solve.
So, what did you and I learn when we were “just playing?” We learned how to explore, create, and think for ourselves. We learned communication, readiness, and social skills. Thinking back to that park bench and the children at play, I can’t help but wonder if there are still things I can learn from play? I think this is definitely a question worth some further thought!continued on next page
American Academy of Pediatrics Clinical Report: The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds, Kenneth R. Ginsburg, MD, MSEd, and the Committee on Communications and the Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health, 2007
T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., Touchpoints: The Essential Reference; Your Child’s Emotional and Behavioral Development, 1992, Perseus Books, Reading, MA
Ganie B. DeHart, L. Alan Sroufe, Robert G. Cooper, Child Development: Its Nature and Course, 4th Edition, 2000, McGraw Hillwww.child-development-guide.com