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.

Physical Development

Play contributes to children’s fine and gross motor development and body awareness as they actively use their bodies. Learning to use a writing tool, such as a marker, is an example of fine motor development through play. The natural progression in small motor development is from scribbles to shapes and forms to representational pictures. Playing with writing tools helps children refine their fine motor skills. Gross motor development, such as hopping and skipping, develops in a similar fashion. When children first learn to hop, they practice hopping on different feet or just for the pure joy of hopping. As elementary children, they integrate their hopping skill into many games, such as hopscotch and jump rope games. Using their bodies during play also enables them to feel physically confident, secure, and self-assured (Isenberg & Quisenberry, 2002).

Recess in schools has traditionally been the time for children to “take a break” from the sedentary academic activities of the classroom and engage in active, free play. Today, that part of the school day is in jeopardy. As a result, the National Association of Early Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education (NAECSSDE) and the National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE) have recommended that elementary children get at least 1 hour of exercise each day, preferably in 15-minute blocks without the structure of a physical education class.

While all children need active play for healthy physical development, the physical benefits are particularly valuable for children with joint or muscular illnesses, such as juvenile rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis. These children cannot engage in repeated strenuous exercise; they can, however, engage in active play. Active play helps them build or maintain energy, joint flexibility, and muscular strength (Majure, 1995). Side benefits of active play for these children include the development of social skills and an increasing ability to endure stressful situations.

Creative Development

We talked about the important role of creative thought and expression in children’s development and learning. Nearly 50 years ago, Sigmund Freud (1958) suggested that every child at play “behaves like a creative writer, in that he creates a world of his own, or, rather, rearranges the things of his world in a new way which pleases him. . . . The creative writer does the same as the child at play. He creates a world of phantasy which he takes very seriously—that is, which he invests with large amounts of emotion” (pp. 143–144).

The play context is ideal for supporting children’s creative and imaginative thought because it offers a risk-free environment. Research supports the notion that play and creative thought are related behaviors because they both rely on children’s ability to use symbols (Johnson, Christie, et al., 1999; Singer & Singer, 1998; Spodek & Saracho, 1998). Jerome and Dorothy Singer (1985, 1998) describe the ability to engage in make-believe as essential to children’s developing the ability to create internal imagery, stimulate curiosity, and experiment with alternative responses to different situations. This capacity, practiced in play settings, enhances children’s ability to engage successfully in new situations.

Creative thought can also be viewed as an aspect of problem solving, which has its roots in play. When young children use their imaginations in play, they are more creative, perform better at school tasks, and develop a problem-solving approach to learning (Dansky, 1980; Dansky & Silverman, 1973; Frost et al., 2001; Fromberg & Bergen, 1998; Pepler & Ross, 1981; Singer, 1973; Sutton-Smith, 1986).

The importance of play in children’s lives is well documented. As children grow and change, play develops with them according to a developmental sequence.