Play is ubiquitous among our species and many others. Children in cultures around the world love play. When they play, you hear their laughter and see their sustained attention. Children play in many different ways—they stack blocks, throw and catch balls, explore new spaces, climb trees, put puzzles together, take part in hide-and-seek, transform objects, and pretend to be someone else.
In the fields of child development and early education, we typically group various types of play into categories such as physical play, object play, pretend play, games with rules, and nowadays, play with computer games. Also, play can be social when more than one child is involved in the activity or independent when the child engages in the activity alone. In children’s lives, different forms of play often overlap. Regardless of the form or nature of play, all play shares certain characteristics. It is pleasurable, voluntary, has no extrinsic goals and actively involves the one who is playing.
Among all of the topics about early childhood, play is perhaps among the most studied. In general, the mounting evidence indicates that in play, children engage in an experimental dialogue with the environment and they learn in a non-risk situation. Quality play is believed to have numerous positive effects on young children’s learning and development.
In cognition, for example, children show stronger aptitudes in creativity, problem solving, flexible thinking, reasoning, executive functioning, and theory of mind when they engage in quality play activities. With regard to social skills, children’s self-regulation and cooperation are shown to relate to high quality play as well.
Children’s language and narrative skills are also advanced in studies that focus on pretend play. Because the documented benefits of play are so fundamental and wide-reaching, many early childhood educators consider it to be the “leading activity” in the early years of learning and development.
The educational values of play have been questioned in recent years. There are several reasons for such concerns. First, there is an urgent need to help young children, particularly poor and minority children, get ready for school by developing emerging literacy and mathematical skills during the preschool years.
Secondly and relatedly, there is a strong push for more “academic” activities in early childhood programs as the result of accountability-driven school reform. Third, play, once considered universally beneficial, is found to vary by culture and community. Fourth, while the academic literature on play is rich and suggestive, it is hardly conclusive.
Despite these concerns, a large majority of early educators firmly believe in the critical importance of play in early development. Play is said to have “sleep” effect. A person with a good night’s sleep is likely to be alert and energetic the next day. Likewise, a child who plays well is likely to benefit from the experience in the long run. This belief is supported by the American Association of Pediatrics, which states, “play is essential to development…so important...that is has been recognized by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights as a right of every child” (Ginsburg, the Committee on Communications and the Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health, 2007, P. 182).
The benefits of play depend on the quality of play. High quality play is not given; it relies on planning and the involvement of intentional adults. The role of the adults—teacher or parents in children’s play is multifaceted. They are providers when considering the play environment and space, extended time, materials, and rich experiences for children to build on for their play. They are also observers—listening closely and observing carefully to understand children’s interests and skills as well as their individual differences. Further, they are participants when they ask questions, pose challenging situations, and expand plots in pretend play. Last but not least, they are supporters, in that they encourage talk in play, provide necessary support, and guide conflict resolution.