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The Value of Play

By — California Childcare Health Program
Updated on Apr 6, 2011

What is play and why is it important?

From earliest infancy, play is the primary way children learn. Through play, children eagerly use all the “tools” they have at their disposal—their bodies, their relationships with their family and peers, and the world around them. Play, more than any other activity, fuels healthy development of young children. It is through play that much of children’s early learning is achieved.

Children play because it is fun. Play takes many forms, but the heart of play is pleasure. And with pleasure comes the powerful drive to repeat such activities. With repetition comes mastery. And mastery brings a sense of accomplishment and confidence.

Types and stages of play

Children engage in different types of play depending upon circumstances and particular needs. Types of play include:

  • Solitary—children playing alone and independently, following their own interests without reference to others.
  • Onlooker—children who watch other children playing, ask questions and make suggestions, but do not enter into the play.
  • Parallel—children playing the same activity or with similar materials beside each other, but not talking or interacting with one another.
  • Associative—children playing with each other, sharing similar materials and activities in an unorganized way.

Cooperative—children working together and interacting, to play or create something in an organized and purposeful way. There are also stages of complexity of play. The first stage of play is simple sensory exploration manipulation of the play material, such as scribbling with crayons, pouring water and sand, or ringing a bell. As children begin to transform and invent objects and rules, they are engaged in symbolic play. For instance, a child may cross two blocks to make the letter “T” or offer playdough “tortillas” to another child. As children become more proficient with language, they begin to substitute words for actions and materials. They play cooperatively and become interested in formal games with peers.

How does play help children grow?

Children’s cognitive skills are enhanced. Through play children learn about concepts, how to group and classify objects, how to make sense of things and events, and how to solve problems. Play often involves trial and error, and problem-solving tasks. Play requires a child to make choices, direct activities, and make plans to reach a goal.

Children develop motor skills. Through play, children develop control and coordination of muscles that are needed to walk, kick, eat or write. Gross motor skills can be enhanced when a toddler pushes a toy grocery cart or an older child plays hopscotch. Fine motor and manipulation skills are developed when preschoolers use their fingers to string cheerios for a necklace or toddlers scribble with a crayon on paper. When throwing and catching a ball, children are practicing hand-eye coordination and their ability to grasp. When children kick a ball across the room, they are practicing coordination and developing large muscle control, tone and flexibility.

Children enhance language skills. Talking, singing, rhyming, and word play help them to master the rules and sounds of language while they have fun.

Children gain social and emotional skills. Play develops imagination and creativity and gives children practice in social skills such as waiting, negotiating, taking turns, cooperation, compromise, sharing and expressing emotions. As children learn about themselves and the world, they acquire self-confidence, self-reliance and self-expression.

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