Those outside the early childhood profession who have little understanding of children may be wondering why we place so much emphasis on play.  As early childhood educators, we are often called on to justify scheduling two hours of play in a kindergarten program or encouraging children's play all day in a preschool.  Many parents do not understand or appreciate the kind of outcomes that are possible with children's play. Those who have studied children's play and those educators who spend their days observing children at play can describe many rich benefits of play. Look at some of those outcomes that play accomplishes:

  • Children develop a sense of competence. As children play with materials, they have the opportunity to make things happen or change things; thus, they experience some control over their world. Because they are in control when they play, they generally choose materials and activities for which they have some skills or interest, so they are comfortable. Their play experiences are successful, so their confidence is enhanced.

    At a time in life when they have limited control over their world, it is important for young children to experience situations that they can control. These are essential experiences for the development of self-esteem, autonomy, and responsibility. For example, let's watch 3-year-old Ibrahim as he goes to the shelf where baskets of little figures (a favorite for toddlers) are stored and chooses the basket of dinosaurs. He dumps them out on a table and sits down in front of the pile. One by one, he stands the figures up in a row in front of him. When he finishes, he begins rearranging them into two lines with dinosaurs facing each other. Then he stages little fights between each pair with the result being that one dinosaur is lying on its side after each fight. Ibrahim makes quiet noises as he manipulates the figures to fight with each other. When he finishes the line of fights, he sits back in his chair with a subtle smile on his face.

    If we could get inside of Ibrahim's head, we would probably hear his feelings of power and satisfaction. "I can do it," he may be saying to himself. He continues his play for another 15 minutes, so he obviously likes it and is accomplishing what he set out to do.

  • Children are able to practice skills. Practice involves the repetition of both physical skills and mental skills. Almost every skill is new when you are a child, so the repetition is actually an enjoyable experience. Each practice can lead to a new or more elaborate skill, so the interest remains high for children. Only when the practice becomes involuntary, required by others, does practice lose its play quality. The best example of play as practice of physical skill is the young child's experience with a tricycle.

    For instance, when Haley first encountered a tricycle out in the play yard, she walked around it a few times before even trying to sit on it. She then got on the tricycle and got off, got on and got off, and continued a few more times. From there, Haley tried to ride the tricycle, and once she felt secure in doing so, she rode and rode and rode. She was able to increase her speed, and eventually she tried to go backwards. Each new skill was practiced.

    In the beginning of her experience with the tricycle, Haley was engaged in a type of practice called mere practice (Piaget, 1962). Mere practice is the kind of practice we observe in much of infant play. Another kind of practice is mental practice.

    Mental practice is something we all do when we are trying to memorize a new phone number—we say it to ourselves over and over. Mental practice can be a play activity if it's done playfully and for fun. For years, Keeley joyfully sang the alphabet song and counted to 100 with great glee. She was accomplishing mental practice in her play.

    Children's play, then, provides practice of the simplest to the most complex skills of sensorimotor and cognitive development.

  • Children are able to develop socially. Even though young children do not play with peers for a number of years, their early play is often with adults and with materials, and near other children. Without the opportunity to play with others, children would not have the experiences they need to build social concepts and skills. For example, when Otioli plays with his friends, Brittany and Paul, and even with his big brother, he experiences a need to share, to cooperate, to negotiate, to problem solve, and to communicate, and he gradually develops those skills.
  • Children are able to solve problems and make decisions in a safe situation. That nonliteral quality of play—the freedom to pretend to be or do anything—provides the context for trying out adult roles, solving problems, and making decisions without any real consequences, so it's safe to take risks. Children are comfortable in those situations and can develop the skills needed when they feel safe. It's an opportunity to try out different roles and experience different situations. Elizabeth Jones (2003) describes the importance of social problem solving as a life skill that children as well as adults will be needing more and more as our world keeps changing.
  • Children gather and process information. Through play, children interact with their world and all of its objects, processes, and events. If you watch even the youngest child with an unknown object, you will see first the process of exploration—touching, smelling, tasting, looking, and listening—followed by manipulation of the objects. Play with objects, situations, processes, and other aspects of their world is children's way of gathering information and connecting the new information with what they have previously experienced or already know.
  • Children express emotions, release tension, and explore anxiety-producing situations (Santrock, 1990). Sometimes through vigorous physical play and sometimes through pretend play, children are able to let adults know what they are feeling. They may not be able to label or tell us about their fear of monsters, but they can show it as they pretend to be ferocious monsters or to run away from the monsters. Children can't tell us that they're frustrated, but they can express it by banging cymbals together or playing a very bossy adult to their dolls. Play allows one to express the full gamut of emotions—joy, pleasure, pain, frustration, anger, and exhilaration. The kind of rough and tumble play that we will talk about later in this chapter is a great form of release for children, as is chasing, shouting, and jumping.

Defending the Value of Play

One of your responsibilities as an early childhood educator will probably be to defend the value of play and to communicate how play helps children develop and learn. In addition to the general benefits we just listed, there are specific learning outcomes that children achieve easily through play. Children develop their literacy understandings and skills through play, their mathematical concepts through play, and their science appreciations and processes through play.  Information about developmental levels of play can guide your observations and enable you to interpret more accurately what you see children doing.