Why is Play Important? Social and Emotional Development, Physical Development, Creative Development

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Apr 30, 2014

Social and Emotional Development

During play, children also increase their social competence and emotional maturity. Smilansky and Shefatya (1990) contend that school success largely depends on children’s ability to interact positively with their peers and adults. Play is vital to children’s social development. It enables children to do the following:

  • Practice both verbal and nonverbal communication skills by negotiating roles, trying to gain access to ongoing play, and appreciating the feelings of others (Spodek & Saracho, 1998).
  • Respond to their peers’ feelings while waiting for their turn and sharing materials and experiences (Sapon-Shevin, Dobbelgere, Carrigan, Goodman, & Mastin, 1998; Wheeler, 2004).
  • Experiment with roles of the people in their home, school, and community by coming into contact with the needs and wishes of others (Creasey, Jarvis, & Berk, 1998; Wheeler, 2004).
  • Experience others’ points of view by working through conflicts about space, materials, or rules positively (Smilansky & Shefatya, 1990; Spodek & Saracho, 1998).

Play supports emotional development by providing a way to express and cope with feelings. Pretend play helps children express feelings in the following four ways (Piaget, 1962):

  1. Simplifying events by creating an imaginary character, plot, or setting to match their emotional state. A child afraid of the dark, for example, might eliminate darkness or night from the play episode.
  2. Compensating for situations by adding forbidden acts to pretend play. A child may, for example, eat cookies and ice cream for breakfast in play, whereas in reality this would not be permitted.
  3. Controlling emotional expression by repeatedly reenacting unpleasant or frightening experiences. For example, a child might pretend to have an accident after seeing a real traffic accident on the highway.
  4. Avoiding adverse consequences by pretending that another character, real or imaginary, commits inappropriate acts and suffers the consequences. Children whose television viewing is monitored at home, for instance, can pretend to allow the doll to watch indiscriminately and then reprimand the “bad child” for unacceptable TV viewing habits.

In addition to expressing feelings, children also learn to cope with their feelings as they act out being angry, sad, or worried in a situation they control (Erikson, 1963). Pretend play allows them to think out loud about experiences charged with both pleasant and unpleasant feelings. A good example is Alexander, a 4-year-old whose dog was recently hit by a car. In his dramatic play in the pet hospital, his teacher heard him say to another child, “I’m sad because the car hurt my dog.” Here he was trying to cope with unpleasant feelings from a frightening situation. Play enabled Alexander to express his feelings so that he could cope with his worry about his dog (Landreth & Homeyer, 1998). So, too, do older children learn valuable emotional skills, such as increasingly realistic self-perceptions, the ability to manage their emotions, and self-control that improves over time through games and inventions. As older children engage in spontaneous and structured play activities, they come to see themselves as good in some areas and less good in others. These opportunities to monitor and discriminate among feelings and emotions contribute to children’s beliefs about their own capacity.

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