A young child, whose language is limited, is better able to express his feelings and understand his world through play than through complicated words. The child who has had a highly emotional negative experience (such as a trip to the dentist) or a positive experience (a birthday party) can retreat to his or her play world and play out "dentist" or "birthday." This recreation in the safe world of play allows the child to digest both pleasant and unpleasant experiences to better understand them and to begin to gain some control over his or her feelings related to the experiences. Fantasy or make-believe play is a built-in therapy system for the well-developing young child (Axline, 1969; Erikson, 1950; Feshback, 1979; Ianotti, 1978; Jackowitz & Watson, 1980; Klein, 1955; Peller, 1959).

The Value of Play for Intellectual Development

Learning is not simply a process of putting information into the child and then having the child put it out. The child must play with the new information to understand it (Flavel, 1985; Piaget, 1951; Sylva, 1977; Vygotsky, 1976). Children use toys and gestures symbolically in play as attempts to understand objects and experiences in their real world (Athey, 1984; Golomb, 1979).

The symbols (Bruner, 1974; Copple, Cocking, & Mathews, 1984; Homann & Weikart, 1995; Piaget, 1951) seen in children's play and artwork indicate the development of the ability to use representation (one thing stands for another). Just as a block can symbolize (Singer, 1973) or represent a truck for the four- or five-year-old child, the letters C-A-T will represent the animal that says "meow" to the older, school-age child. The young child needs many experiences of playing with symbols before he or she is ready to unlock the world of words (the letters C-A-T stand for the animal: cat), and this is required for success in beginning reading (Bruner, 1974; Garvey, 1977). It is during the preschool years that the child is moving from the make-believe symbols (Bretherton, 1984; Bretherton & Walters, 1984; Mathews, 1977) in play to the world of words in reading and writing.

The Value of Play for Physical Development

It is through sensorimotor play (play using both the senses and muscles) that the infant or toddler discovers his or her own body and its abilities. The preschool child is still developing this awareness through both small-muscle activity (getting hands and eyes to work together) and large-muscle activity (crawling, walking, running, balancing, and climbing). It is also through play with the senses of taste, smell, touch, sight, and hearing that feelings become coordinated and useful for testing and gathering information about the world. The sensorimotor play of preschool children helps them master both understanding of their bodies and the ability to control the use of their bodies more effectively.