Why Is Play Important? Cognitive Development, Language Development, Literacy Development

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Guidelines from the Association for Childhood Education International (ACEI) and the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), two respected professional associations, affirm that play is essential for all children’s healthy development and learning across all ages, domains, and cultures. Play does the following:

  • Enables children to make sense of their world
  • Develops social and cultural understandings
  • Allows children to express their thoughts and feelings
  • Fosters flexible and divergent thinking
  • Provides opportunities to meet and solve real problems
  • Develops language and literacy skills and concepts (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997; Gronlund, 2001; Isenberg & Quisenberry, 2002)

In the following play vignettes, consider how play contributes to children’s cognitive, language, literacy, social/emotional, and creative development.

Cognitive Development

Ellen, Taralyn, and Jasmine are first graders. On this day early in the school year, they come into their classroom, hang up their backpacks, and then choose to play school at the chalkboard. Ellen decides that Jasmine and Taralyn should get a chair and bring it up to the board. They each also find a yardstick.

Ellen: We better have two chairs.

Taralyn: (writing on the chalkboard) Today is . . .

Jasmine: I need to check the size. (using the yardstick, begins to measure herself while sitting down) I am the big teacher. My size is up to here. (pointing to where she measured herself)

Ellen: (gets up from the chair, ready to be the teacher) I will write it. You sit down.

Jasmine: Today is what? (gets up) I want to be the teacher.

Ellen: It’s my turn first. You can be the teacher next.

(As Ellen looks at the calendar to find the words she wants to use, Taralyn measures herself with the yardstick.)

Taralyn: Today is October 7, 2004.

Jasmine: Ellen, can I write, too?

Ellen: After I am finished. (Taralyn and Jasmine begin giving Ellen weather words to write.)

Taralyn: Read the calendar sentence. Hey, you forgot the 7.

Ellen: Yeah. (She goes back and inserts the number 7. Then she writes Tody and wet.)

Taralyn: What is the weather? It’s my turn.

Ellen: Raise your hand for the weather.

Taralyn: Today the weather is sunny.

Ellen: (Writing on the board, she asks Taralyn for help.) What comes after s-u-n?

Taralyn: N-n-y.

The first graders in this scenario are using play as a tool for cognitive development. When we talk about cognitive development, we refer to how children make sense of their world. They do this by building on what they already know to interpret new experiences. In their play, Ellen, Taralyn, and Jasmine demonstrate the following four essential elements of cognitive development (Perkins, 1984):

  1. Problem solving. Using the yardstick to measure herself sitting down and standing up, Jasmine figures out the concept of size.
  2. Mental planning. When Ellen comes to the chalkboard area, tells Taralyn and Jasmine to get two chairs, sits down in front, and stands at the chalkboard to write, she clearly plans to play school. Mental planning also occurs when Ellen states she will be the teacher first.
  3. Self-monitoring. We see Ellen checking her own spelling skills when she asks Taralyn for help spelling the rest of the word sunny.
  4. Evaluation. When Taralyn is reading the calendar sentence and notices that Ellen forgot the 7, she demonstrates her understanding of writing the date.

Much of the research on play shows its relationship to the development of children’s thinking and more sophisticated classification skills (Frost, Wortham, & Reifel, 2001; Perkins, 1984; Santrock, 2003) and the ability to use what they already know to construct new knowledge. In this case, these first graders are building on what they already know (the routines of school, specific teacher behaviors, and basic literacy concepts and skills) and extending it through playful interactions. They play with words and letters as they test the spelling of weather words and the way to record the day and date.

The cognitive skills children use in pretend play are essential for their success in school (Smilansky, 1968; Smilansky & Shefatya, 1990). All subjects and problems include cognitive skills children use to pretend, yet many subjects (such as social studies) are those with which children have limited experience. To illustrate, after a teacher shares books about the Chinese New Year, such as Lion Dancer (Waters & Slovenz-Low, 1990) or China’s Bravest Girl (Chin, 1997), children’s imaginations are stimulated. During play we might notice the children imagining a Chinese New Year celebration with its special dances to ward off evil spirits, colorful dragons and decorations, and special Chinese festival foods, because they are using their make-believe ability to play. In this way, real and pretend become complementary as children use make-believe to enhance their cognitive understanding (Berk, 2005; Johnson, Christie, et al., 1999; Smilansky & Shefatya, 1990).

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