Physical Development

For many, play is epitomized by children running, climbing, jumping, and moving. The pure joy of these simple physical activities is warmly remembered. Children using their large muscles in these activities are strengthening their gross motor development (Gallahue, 1982). Beginning in infancy, children improve neuromuscular coordination through repeated use of their large muscles. Batting at a mobile as an infant, walking during early toddlerhood, running and climbing at the preschool level, and swinging and skipping in the primary years are all examples of how play enhances gross motor development.

Play activities also include use of smaller muscles for a variety of tasks. Fine motor development is refined through cutting, lacing, buttoning, painting, and writing experiences in play. Building with Legos, putting together puzzles, sand and water play, woodworking projects, play dough, and dressing dolls are additional examples of play activities that promote fine motor development.

As children mature, they use their muscles in continually more complex ways, integrating large and fine muscle movements with visual perception. Play allows frequent practice of these complicated actions. Hitting and catching a ball, jumping rope, playing hopscotch, and using the monkey bars are all examples of these more difficult coordinated movements. In addition, play allows children to develop a better awareness of body, space, and direction. As they move their bodies, children learn about up, down, in, out, over, under, left, right, and more as they climb, swing, crawl, and run. Playing in the gym or outdoors is particularly good for body awareness learning.

Emotional Development

Play is an excellent vehicle for helping children with their emotional (also called affective) development (Johnson, Christie, & Wardle, 2005). In their play, children can master emotional issues such as anxiety, frustration, normal developmental conflicts, traumatic situations, unfamiliar concepts, and overwhelming experiences.

Four-year-old Raul just had a very exciting trip to the museum, although his initial experience was a bit overwhelming. Just inside the door to the museum was a huge skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus rex. When his father told Raul that this was once a living animal, he was shocked. How could anything that big ever have lived? During the days and weeks that follow in preschool, Raul plays out his wonderment by making dinosaurs with play dough, drawing dinosaurs, building dinosaur cages with the blocks, and fighting dinosaurs on the playground. It will take him many weeks to play through this interest, but when it is completed, Raul will have mastered a complex emotional issue.

Another major emotional benefit of play is that it gives children numerous opportunities to feel good about themselves. Because there is no right or wrong way to play, children have successful experiences that positively influence their self-concept.

Annette, age 18 months, is playing with a set of nesting blocks in her toddler class, experimenting with building a tower. Although this was not the intended use for this toy, Annette has managed a stack of three blocks—her tallest yet. Her success is evident in the huge smile that seems to fill her whole face. She is feeling good about herself right now.