The Nature of Children's Play (page 2)

By — Educational Resource Information Center (U.S. Department of Education)
Updated on Nov 12, 2009

Games With Rules

Children become interested in formal games with peers by age five or younger. Older children's more logical and socialized ways of thinking make it possible for them to play games together. Games with rules are the most prominent form of play during middle childhood (Piaget, 1962).

The main organizing element in game play consists of explicit rules which guide children's group behavior. Game play is very organized in comparison to sociodramatic play. Games usually involve two or more sides, competition, and agreed-upon criteria for determining a winner. Children use games flexibly to meet social and intellectual needs. For example, choosing sides may affirm friendship and a pecking order. Games provide children with shared activities and goals. Children often negotiate rules in order to create the game they wish to play (King, 1986). They can learn reasoning strategies and skills from strategy games like checkers. In these games, children must consider at the same time both offensive alternatives and the need for defense. Many card games encourage awareness of mathematics and of the psychology of opponents. Such games can be intellectually motivating parts of pre- and primary school curriculum (Kamii & DeVries, 1980, Kamii, 1985).

The Adult Role In Children's Play

These general guidelines may be helpful:

  • Value children's play and talk to children about their play. Adults often say "I like the way you're working," but rarely, "I like the way you're playing."
  • Play with children when it is appropriate, especially during the early years. If adults pay attention to and engage in children's play, children get the message that play is valuable.
  • Create a playful atmosphere. It is important for adults to provide materials which children can explore and adapt in play.
  • When play appears to be stuck or unproductive, offer a new prop, suggest new roles, or provide new experiences, such as a field trip.
  • Intervene to ensure safe play. Even in older children's play, social conflicts often occur when children try to negotiate. Adults can help when children cannot solve these conflicts by themselves (Caldwell, 1977). Adults should identify play which has led to problems for particular children. They should check materials and equipment for safety. Finally, adults should make children aware of any hidden risks in physical challenges they set for themselves.

For More Information

Bergen, D. (1988). PLAY AS A MEDIUM FOR LEARNING AND DEVELOPMENT. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Caldwell, B. (1977). "Aggression and Hostility in Young Children." YOUNG CHILDREN, 32, pp. 4-13.

Fein, G. (1981). "Pretend Play in Childhood: An Integrative Review." CHILD DEVELOPMENT, 52, pp. 1095-1118.

Garvey, C. (1977). PLAY. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


Kamii, C., & DeVries, R. (1980). GROUP GAMES IN EARLY EDUCATION: IMPLICATIONS OF PIAGET'S THEORY. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

King, N. (1986). "Play and the Culture of Childhood." In G. Fein & M. Rivkin (Eds.), THE YOUNG CHILD AT PLAY. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Piaget, J. (1962). PLAY, DREAMS, AND IMITATION IN CHILDHOOD. New York: Norton.

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