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Purposes of Play

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Oct 25, 2010

Play Fosters Physical Development

Play fulfills a wide variety of purposes in the life of the child. On a very simple level it promotes the development of sensorimotor skills, or skills that require the coordination of movement with senses, such as using eye-hand coordination to stack blocks (Frost et al., 2005; Morrison, 2004). Children spend hours perfecting such abilities and increasing the level of difficulty to make the task ever more challenging. Anyone who has lived with a 1-year-old will recall the tireless persistence with which he pursues the acquisition of basic physical skills.

Strenuous, physical play is especially important today when obesity among children and adults has reached an all-time high. An estimated 64% of all adults in this country are seriously overweight or obese. Ten percent of all children age 2 to 5 and 15% of older children are overweight (Association for Childhood Education International [ACEI], 2004). It is crucial that early childhood programs offer children the opportunity for active, gross-motor play every day, as habits and attitudes toward physical activity are formed early in life and continue into adulthood.

Outdoor Play Connects Children to Nature and Their Environment

Playing outdoors allows children to experience their natural environment with all their senses “open.” They can breathe fresh air and feel the invigoration of their hearts pounding as they charge up a hill. Children learn about the variety of creatures that may live in their area, explore the life cycle when they discover a cocoon or squashed ant, and experience fully with their senses how everything seems different after the rain. Where does the sun go when it is cloudy? Where does the wind come from? Questions about nature arise spontaneously through outdoor play and provoke children into thought and, if properly supported by the teacher, into deep investigations of the world. It is vital that we allow children, all children—urban, suburban and rural—to discover the world outside and learn to appreciate the environment around them. Children with disabilities or special equipment—they, too, can discover the world and appreciate the environment through outdoor play. We must accommodate our programs to meet the needs of children with disabilities by encouraging their outdoor activity. After all, discovering the beauty of nature is one of the lasting delights of childhood.

Play Fosters Intellectual Development

Both Piaget and Vygotsky assert that play is a major influence in cognitive growth (Hirsh-Pacek & Golinkoff, 2003; Saracho, 1998). Piaget (1962) maintains that imaginative, pretend play is one of the purest forms of symbolic thought available to the young child. Vygotsky (1978) also extols the value of such fantasy play, arguing that during episodes of fantasy and pretend play, when children are free to experiment, attempt, and try out possibilities, they are most able to reach a little above or beyond their usual level of abilities, referred to as their zone of proximal development.

Play also offers opportunities for the child to acquire information that lays the foundation for additional learning (Hirsh-Pacek & Golinkoff, 2003; Isenberg & Quisenberry, 2002; Jalongo, 2003). For example, through manipulating blocks he learns the concept of equivalence (two small blocks equal one larger one) (Jarrell, 1998). Through playing with water he acquires knowledge of volume, which leads ultimately to developing the concept of reversibility (if you reverse an action that has changed something, it will resume its original state).

Language has been found to be stimulated when children engage in dramatic pretend play (Bergen, 2004; Isenberg & Quisenberry, 2002; C. Shore, 1998). Pellegrini (1986) found this to be particularly true in the housekeeping corner, where children tended to use more explicit, descriptive language in their play than they did when using blocks. For example, they used such phrases as “a very sick doll” or “a big, bad needle,” in contrast with using “this,” “that,” and “those” when pointing to various blocks. Riojas-Cortez (2001) found that children’s play in a bilingual classroom helped to extend the children’s use of language experimentation in both languages.

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