When a child is playing they are not just filling in time, they are engaging in a purposeful activity. Play is essential for optimal development and learning in children. Play is often described as a vehicle that enables children to learn about themselves, explore their surroundings, develop physical, social-communication, cognitive and emotional skills. Play becomes a platform from which children learn about other people and how to interact with them.
It is, therefore, important to teach your child to learn how to play better because play can nurture and stimulate your child’s development. For some children, playing doesn’t come naturally to them. Children with disabilities, for various reasons, need guidance with play and may need certain skills to be explicitly taught.
This article discusses the various benefits of play.
What exactly is play?
Play is a generic term applied to a wide range of children’s activities and behaviours. Play can be structured or unstructured. Adults often direct structured play and there are usually rules. In unstructured play the child chooses the activity and makes the rules. Children can play on their own or with others. Play activities are satisfying, creative and freely chosen by the child.
Of course, play will naturally take different forms for different children. Play might be energetic and boisterous, light-hearted, quiet and contemplative or very serious.
Here is a definition of play:
Through play children explore social, material and imaginary worlds and their relationships with them, elaborating all the while a flexible range of responses to the challenges they encounter. By playing, children learn and develop as individuals and as members of the community.
Definition adapted from the Hampshire County Council and the Early Years Development and Childcare Partnership and Children's Play Council (1998) ‘New Charter for Children's Play’, Children's Society and The Excellence of Play Edited by Janet R. Moyles, Open University Press, 1995.
The Seven Main Benefits of Play
Research shows that play supports learning and development across the physical, communication, social, emotional, affective, intellectual and educational domains.
In the physical domain, play is particularly vital for encouraging physical movement, co-ordination and strength. Physical play activities will assist to develop your child’s:
- Gross motor skills (e.g. jumping, riding, carrying, climbing, lifting, throwing),
- Fine motor skills (e.g. cutting, constructing, pasting, turning, twisting, squeezing, buttoning, pouring, painting),
- Strength and endurance (e.g. playing sports, constructing, pulling a wagon), and
- Hand eye co-ordination skills (e.g. handwriting, catching a ball, colouring in).
Communication in Play
In the communication domain, play acts as a foundation for developing the child’s understanding and ability to express themselves through verbal and/or non verbal methods. Play can be used as the platform to develop your child’s verbal and non verbal communication to:
- Express their needs and wants (e.g. asking for a toy, making a choice),
- Understand other people’s messages (e.g. giving people their toy), and
- Understand concepts (e.g. up/down, over/under, slow/fast).
Emotional Development Through Play
In the emotional domain, play is a medium through which children learn to recognise, express and manage their emotions. For example, through play children have opportunities to:
- Experience feelings (e.g. fun, excitement, annoyance, curiosity),
- Express their feelings (e.g. telling another child that they are like them), and
- Manage feelings such as anger (e.g. releasing energy by jumping on trampoline).
Intellectual Development Through Play
In the intellectual domain, play enables children to acquire skills that are related to thinking. These skills enable the child to explore, deepen, extend and improve their understanding of their environment and experiences. For example, play can foster the development of:
- Increases in attention span (e.g. puzzles),
- Creativity and imagination (e.g. kitchen, oven,table, dolls, plates, cups, knives, forks etc.),
- Problem-solving skills (e.g. chess), and
- Cause and effect (e.g. put bigger blocks at the bottom for support).
Play and the Self
In the affective domain, play can serve as the platform to build the child’s willingness to learn, ability to persist, motivation to seek and use new knowledge. For example, play can build the child’s:
- Self-esteem (e.g. proud of what we did),
- Self-confidence (e.g. keep trying to build a complex building),
- Self-motivation (e.g. doing it together), and
- Developing independence.
Play and Socialising
In the social domain, play can enhance the ways the child relates to others (social skills). For example, play experiences can mirror real life social situations. This can help the child learn a variety of social skills that are the glue that holds social interactions and relationships together such as:
- Co-operation skills (e.g. playing hide and seek)
- Friendship skills (e.g. water play with another child)
- Conversational skills (e.g. peek a boo)
- Understand how to behave in different situations (e.g. playing doctors and nurses)
In the educational domain, play provides a fun and enjoyable context to learn emergent literacy skills. For example, play can facilitate learning:
- Numeracy skills (e.g. Counting and stacking cups e.g. 1, 2, 3,4)
- Reading skills (e.g. learning that letters, numbers, signs, words, symbols have a purpose )
- Writing skills (e.g. scribbling, painting, drawing)
- How stories work (e.g. plot, characters, structure, purpose)
Examples of learning that occurs when playing games
Playing with puzzles or building blocks can be viewed as simple games. Closer examination however reveals that they help the child develop a variety of skills.
The Benefits of Playing with Puzzles and Blocks
- Lifting and picking up pieces,
- Crossing the midline to place pieces,
- Manipulating pieces to fit develops fine motor skills, and
- Hand eye coordination is enhanced.
- Choosing a puzzle or block,
- Communicating ideas with friends,
- Describing shapes and pictures, and
- Describing what is being imagined.
- Staying calm,
- Learning how to handle frustration when a piece does not fit.
- Matching shapes and colours,
- Thinking of strategies to complete a puzzle,
- Problem solving, and
- Visual spatial awareness.
- Motivation to complete project,
- Feel good when it’s finished,
- Enhanced self confidence,
- Positive self esteem,
- Development of autonomy.
- Taking turns,
- Waiting, and
- Patterns, and
- Problem solving.
This article highlights that when a child is playing they are not just filling in time, they are engaging in a purposeful activity. Play is essential for optimal development and learning in children. Play is often described as a vehicle that enables children to learn about themselves, explore their surroundings, develop physical, social-communication, cognitive and emotional skills. Play becomes a platform from which children learn about other people and how to interact with them. Therefore, it is important to teach your child to learn how to play, because play can nurture and stimulate your child’s development.
Let’s Play and Have Fun!