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).

Language Development

Evan and Anna are preparing a birthday celebration for their mother in the housekeeping area of their Head Start classroom. When they realize they need a present, Anna says, “Let’s ask Mr. Bear.” This is a reference to the book Ask Mr. Bear by Marjorie Flack (1932), in which Danny tries to find the perfect birthday present for his mother by asking several different animals for suggestions. After locating the book in the library corner, Evan and Anna become the goose, the goat, the cow, the hen, and the bear as they search for the perfect present. The book becomes the content for their play as they assume the roles of the animals, experiment with the intonations and inflections of the different animals, and use language to guide their own behavior and direct the behavior of others. Evan and Anna’s play is contributing to their language growth and vice versa.

Proficiency in oral language is essential for all children’s success in school. Studies of how children learn both their first and second language describe language use as a major influence on language development (Han, Benavides, & Christie, 2001; Morrow, 2001). In the previous scenario, we see at least four ways in which Anna and Evan’s play of a birthday celebration enables them to practice important language skills:

  1. Communication. In pretend play, children use role-appropriate statements and metacommunication, or language used to maintain the play episode; plan a story line; and assign roles. Pretending to be someone else enables children to use voice inflections and language in situations they may or may not have encountered. Play helps children internalize the many rule systems associated with the language they are speaking. It also helps them generate multiple ways of expressing their thinking (Santrock, 2003).
  2. Forms and functions. During play, children learn to use language for different purposes in a variety of settings and with different people. Michael Halliday (1975) calls this process “learning how to mean,” as children discover that what they say translates to what can be done. Talking in play settings allows children to practice the necessary forms and functions of language (Halliday, 1975) and helps them think about ways to communicate. Moreover, for children whose native language is not English, play offers children opportunities to build on and practice fluency in their home language in safe and informal settings (Han et al., 2001; Owocki, 1999). describes these functions, provides a language example, and identifies play contexts that support these language forms and functions.
  3. Purposeful verbal interaction. In play with others, children often use language to ask for materials, ask a question, seek out information and provide information to others, express ideas, explore language, and establish and maintain the play. For younger children, verbal give-and-take during sociodramatic play needs to be highly developed because children plan, manage, problem-solve, and maintain the play by verbal explanations, discussions, or commands (Smilansky & Shefatya, 1990). For older children, the ability to use a reflective and analytical approach to language is related to their level of linguistic awareness and achievements, which are essential to all forms of play.
  4. Play with language. Children of all ages enjoy playing with language because, in doing so, they feel in control of it. Play is their arena for experimenting with and coming to understand words, syllables, sounds, and grammatical structure. Language play for elementary school children manifests itself in the jokes, riddles, jump rope rhymes, and games they use. Elementary school children are intrigued by the sound and meaning ambiguity of “knock-knock” jokes as well as by the humor of enacting scripts that include dialogue involving multiple meanings and rhymes. These forms of language play require the transformational ability to explore the phonological, syntactic, and semantic rules of language (Bergen, 2002; Clawson, 2002, Isenberg & Quisenberry, 2002).

Literacy Development

A growing body of evidence shows how children’s play contributes explicitly to their literacy development. We know that children’s literacy development—their reading and writing abilities—occurs from infancy along with their oral language development. By the time they come to school, they already possess a well-developed spoken language in their native language (Christie, Enz, & Vukelich, 2003). We also know that children learn to read and write in meaningful, functional social settings that involve both social and cognitive abilities (Morrow, 2001). Elementary children become proficient readers when they view reading as an enjoyable way of learning and an important means of communication. Proficient readers demonstrate some of the same characteristics of good players; they are strategic, engaged, fluent, and independent (Bromley, 1998).

Children at play can reveal the following literacy understandings:
  1. Interest in stories, knowledge of story elements, and story comprehension. Evan and Anna demonstrated an interest in stories (choosing to retell Ask Mr. Bear), displayed knowledge of story elements (character, plot, setting, goal, and conflict), and exhibited story comprehension in their pretend dramatization of preparing for a birthday. Children’s first attempts at reading and writing often occur during dramatic play as they read environmental print, make shopping lists, or play school. Most beginning readers rely on their oral language to gain meaning from books as they internalize the structure and meaning of language. More proficient readers have a more complex and developed concept of the interrelatedness of story elements. Dramatic play develops improved story comprehension and an increased understanding of story elements (Christie et al., 2003).
  2. Understanding fantasy in books. In dramatic play, children enter the play world “as if” they were another character or thing. The ability to transform oneself in play enables children to enter the world often created in books featuring talking animals (such as Ask Mr. Bear or Charlotte’s Web [White, 1952]) or to write stories in which they create hypothetical characters. Elementary children’s ability to play with reality is necessary to understand science fiction as well as other types of fantasy books (Bromley, 1998; Christie et al., 2003).
  3. Use of symbols to represent their world. As children reinvent or construct their own versions of stories, they naturally come to understand their world and make it their own by representing their understandings symbolically. Younger children’s language, role enactment, or use of props provide evidence of children’s competence in representing what they know (Johnson, Christie, et al., 1999; Owocki, 1999). Similarly, older children’s story retellings, writing, wordplay, and the Internet provide evidence of their competence in representing the literacy behaviors they know. It is important for classroom teachers to understand the many ways children’s play, games, and inventions contribute to their language and literacy development. is a checklist for documenting children’s literacy development through play.