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.

Play Enhances Social Development

One of the strongest benefits and satisfactions stemming from play is the way it enhances social development. Playful social interchange begins practically from the moment of birth (Bergen, 2004; Bredekamp & Copple, 1997).

As children grow into toddlerhood and beyond, an even stronger social component becomes evident as more imaginative pretend play develops. The methodological analysis provided by Smilansky and Shefatya (1990) is helpful. They speak of dramatic and sociodramatic play, differentiating between the two partially on the basis of the number of children involved in the activity. Dramatic play involves imitation and may be carried out alone, but the more advanced sociodramatic play entails verbal communication and interaction with two or more people, as well as imitative role playing, make-believe in regard to objects and actions and situations, and persistence in the play over a period of time.

Social play in particular has been found to be such a valuable avenue for learning that Rubin, who is conducting a longitudinal study of the relationship of social play to later behavior, has concluded that “children who experience a consistent impoverished quality of social play and social interactions are at risk for later social maladjustment” (Coplan & Rubin, 1998, p. 374).

Sociodramatic play in particular also helps the child learn to put himself in another’s place, thereby fostering the growth of empathy and consideration of others. It helps him define social roles: He learns by experiment what it is like to be the baby or the mother or the doctor. And it provides countless opportunities for acquiring social skills: how to enter a group and be accepted by them, how to balance power and bargain with other children, and how to work out the social give-and-take that is the key to successful group interaction (Hirsh-Pacek & Golinkoff, 2003; Koralek, 2004; G. Reynolds & Jones, 1997).

Play Contains Rich Emotional Values

The emotional value of play has been better accepted and understood than the intellectual or social value because therapists have long employed play as a medium for the expression and relief of feelings (Axline, 1969; Koralek, 2004; Landreth & Homeyer, 1998; O’Connor, 2000). Children may be observed almost anyplace in the nursery center expressing their feelings about doctors by administering shots with relish or their jealousy of a new baby by walloping a doll, but play is not necessarily limited to the expression of negative feelings. The same doll that only a moment previously was being punished may next be seen being crooned to sleep in the rocking chair.

Omwake cites an additional emotional value of play (Moffitt & Omwake, n.d.). She points out that play offers “relief from the pressure to behave in unchildlike ways.” In our society so much is expected of children and the emphasis on arranged learning can be so intense that play becomes indispensable as a balance to pressures to conform to adult standards.

Finally, play offers the child an opportunity to achieve mastery of his environment. In this way, play supports the child in Erikson’s first two stages of psychosocial development, promoting the development of autonomy and initiative. When a child plays, he is in command. He establishes the conditions of the experience by using his imagination, and he exercises his powers of choice and decision as the play progresses.

Play Develops the Creative Aspect of the Child’s Personality

Play, which arises from within, expresses the child’s personal, unique response to the environment. It is inherently a self-expressive activity that draws richly on the child’s powers of imagination (Isenberg & Quisenberry, 2002; Jalongo, 2003). As Nourot (1998) says, “The joyful engagement of children in social pretend play creates a kind of ecstasy that characterizes the creative process throughout life” (p. 383).

Play increases the child’s repertoire of responses. Divergent thinking is characterized by the ability to produce more than one answer, and it is evident that play provides opportunities to develop alternative ways of reacting to similar situations. For example, when the children pretend that space creatures have landed in the yard, some may respond by screaming and running, others by trying to “capture” them, and still others by engaging them in conversation and offering them a refreshing snack after their long journey.

Play Is Deeply Satisfying to Children

Probably the single most important purpose of play is that it makes children—and adults, too—happy. In a recent study of 122 preschoolers in 8 various child care settings, 98% of the children cited play as their favorite activity. In addition, researchers found that the highest-quality centers offered the most opportunities for free play and allowed extended time for children to play. It is interesting to note that even in the centers that were rated “low quality” (where teachers were observed yelling at children and punishing them frequently), the children made play the central focus of their day, liked play best, and expressed happiness because they were able to play (Wiltz & Klein, 2001). Regardless of their situation, almost all children find happiness in play.