Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Importance of Play

Written by Rachel Davis
(reprinted from the NAAEYC newsletter, March 2010)

With so much pressure put on the teachers in an early childhood
Pre-K classroom to have the children “ready” for kindergarten,
some parents are likely to criticize the amount of time their children
spend playing each day. Some might ask; “Why are they
playing so much? Shouldn’t they be learning?” As early childhood
educators it is our job to enlighten the parents, and (in
some instances) other professionals in the field, on the importance
of play in the classroom. Children learn an abundance of
skills through simple play experiences. Both free play and
teacher directed activities are important to every child’s daily

In the article, The Importance of Play in Child Development, by
Ellie Dixon, it states that “for a child…there is no more constructive
activity than play”. Dixon challenges us to think about play in
this way: children are powerless and small in their everyday
lives. They are constantly being told what to do and how to do it,
but when they play, they are “in charge”. Playing encourages
children to develop their socio-dramatic play skills as well as to
use more expressive language. When children are allowed to
use their imagination during play, their ideas and experiences
become more rich and meaningful. If a teacher places a prop box
in the dramatic play center and gives the children no specific
instruction on how the items are “supposed to be used”, the children
are forced to use their imaginations and own ideas to come
up with a pretend scenario. Each child is unique and brings his/
her own background knowledge and experiences to the group
and each child contributes differently. Therefore, if the teacher
stands back and lets the children take on the lead role during
play, the encounters become more important to them.

Play also helps children learn how to cooperate beside, and
eventually with, other children. Children do not start out knowing
how to play with their peers. They must have ample opportunities
to play beside other children in order to develop the skills
necessary to function in a small or large group setting. An article,
Old Fashioned Play Builds Serious Skills, by Alix Spiegel,
suggests that “time spent playing make-believe actually helped
children develop a critical cognitive skill called executive function.

Executive function has a number of different elements, but a
central one is the ability to self- regulate. Kids with good selfregulation
are able to control their emotions and behaviors, resist
impulses, and exert self-control and discipline.” For example, a
child who has just had a toy yanked from his hand by a peer may
have the initial urge to resort to physical aggression in order to
retrieve the toy, but being equipped with the proper learned behavioral
skills, he is able to control that urge and handle the
situation appropriately.

However, children do not need their peers at all times in order to
learn through play. Those engaged in solitary play are learning
too. For example, a child playing alone in the manipulative center
is being exposed to print, shapes, numbers, colors, patterns,
textures, sounds, etc. He may pick up a peg board and small
pegs and begin putting all of the red pegs classifying objects by
color, developing his fine motor control, and developing his attention
span, among other things. These are all necessary pre math
skills. In order for a child to learn abstract math skills, he or she
must first have these hands on concrete experiences. A child in
the book center is being exposed to different types of text, different
types of books, a variety of photos and colors, important
information, and is practicing the act of reading. All of these
things are laying the foundation for reading. In short, solitary play
is just as vital to a child’s development as group play.

Meaningful solitary and group play can take place in all areas of
the learning environment, including outdoors. Outdoor play lends
itself to a variety of learning experiences because children are
being exposed to sights, smells, sounds, and textures that are
often not found indoors. Children are allowed to engage in more
active physical play while outside, and in turn they are developing
their gross motor skills by running, jumping, hopping, throwing,
kicking, pedaling tricycles, climbing, swinging, digging, balancing,
pushing, pulling, etc. In the article, The Importance of Outdoor
Play, Dr. Anita Brit explains that even offering children the same
outdoor experiences that they would have indoors, teaches them
different skills. Dr. Brit uses the example: “Building with blocks on
an uneven surface outside, or playing with toy cars in the grass
teaches them about different textures, sounds, and smells because
the environment is naturally different from the indoors.”

Children need ample time each day to spend outdoors, if possible.
So, why so much play? By allowing children the freedom to explore,
we are allowing them to learn and build connections that set
the stage for skills needed later in life. Sitting children down and
drilling them with flashcards and dittos is not doing them any favors,
not to mention, rather boring! Children need to be able to do
what they do best: PLAY. Allow children to get messy and dirty
and use their hands to explore. Do more than just tell them, “Dirt
is dry and crumbly.” Let them put their hands in a bucket of dirt
and experience it first hand. Add digging tools, little treasures
such as rocks or shells, and even add water. While they’re elbow
deep in dirt and mud, get them talking about the dirt and help
them expand their vocabulary. Another example would be to expand
upon a statement like, “Ice is cold.” Try putting out bowls of
ice and allow the children to touch and manipulate it. Talk about
the ice being cold and watch what happens as it melts. For older
children, this would be a great transition to other in depth science
investigations. Children are naturally curious and will learn so
much more if they have had fun, meaningful, first hand experiences
with things relevant to the world around them.

Years ago, children were sent outdoors to play with very few
“things”. They were forced to use their imagination. A stick became
a bat, a rock became a ball, and random objects (trees,
posts, rags, etc) became the bases. Viola! They had a baseball
game. Nowadays children have high tech toys with specific uses,
and while some of these toys can be very educational, children
still need plenty of opportunities to play, roam, and explore
with the freedom that will encourage their imagination and

Dixon, Ellie. October 25, 2009
“The Importance of Play in Child Development”.
Spiegel, Alix October 26, 2009
“Old Fashioned Play Builds Serious Skills”.
Brit, Anita Ph. D.October 26, 2009
“The Importance of Outdoor Play”.