Why Children Need To Play

Published on: January 19, 2020

Play is so important for the physical as well as emotional development of children. Julia Gabriel examines how it creates a great impact on their future lives.

By Julia Gabriel

How do children learn? How do they grasp entire language systems, codes of communication, symbolic thinking, and mastery of the skills they need to read and write? The answer is so simple that it’s sometimes too difficult to grasp. They learn through play!

How can that be? Well, babies learn through play. Do you remember those first games that they played intuitively with us, the first pretend games of peek-a-boo? The elaborate, imaginative play of 3 and 4-year-olds grows out of this. The give and take of conversation grow out of a baby’s first playful smiles and our response to them. The manipulation and solving of puzzles grow out of a baby’s first reaching and grasping of objects we use in play with them. If we play with our babies in a loving, nurturing, joyful way, they learn to grow up trusting in people, forming solid relationships with those around them. Knowledge of the world grows out of a baby’s early play.

When a two-year-old begins make-believe play, it contributes to the goals of early education. Let’s examine these.

Representational Thought

Through imaginary play, a child practices many different ways of representing reality, by creating symbols. They make homes, farms, animals, people, food, or an outing to the zoo with paint, blocks, play-dough, and sand or by dressing up. Their creations are symbols of representational thought. Symbols are things that represent something like an object, idea or event. The important thing is that all later education is based on the assumption that a child has symbolic competence. Literacy and numeracy are about understanding symbols. So, it’s crucial to pay attention to this symbolic mastery in the preschool years. Symbolic mastery is gained and practiced through involvement in a wide variety of play activities.

Conceptual Thought

Children at play are young scientists and mathematicians. They’re exploring the boundaries of their world asking what happens if I mix mud with water, red with blue, blue with yellow? When a child plays with sand and a bucket, or water and jugs, he is laying the foundations of mathematical understanding. It’s only through experience that they will come to understand concepts like greater than, smaller than, density, gravity, weight, size and conservation of liquids. It is only through play that he will gain this concrete experience and knowledge.

Language and Communication Skills

During play, children’s language is more complex than in most other activities. They’re practicing using the adult language they’ve heard by using it in role-play. A child “playing” at being the teacher, mother or father will recreate the language patterns she has overheard using correct grammar and a wide range of advanced communication skills. I remember my surprise on first hearing my own words, expressions, and mannerisms coming out of my two-year-old daughter Emma!

Early childhood literacy foundations are primarily about talking and playing with words and language. These natural forms of learning and development come before reading and writing or exposure to print.

Physical Development

Children at play are exercising their bodies and mastering physical coordination in the most natural way. Rhyme games for clapping, jumping, crawling, freezing and miming daily activities are excellent ways to help your child develop mastery of gross and fine motor skills. He’ll need these for later literacy. A child who can’t sit at the table and cut, may struggle to sit and learn to write so it’s not only fun but also beneficial to try cutting and making a collage together at home.

Social and Emotional Development

Through play, children learn to work cooperatively, solve problems collaboratively and how to win friends. Social rules are absorbed naturally by observation and practiced through play. Play can help young children deal with things they can’t put into words: Distress at Daddy going away, fear of monsters or the dark, or going to school. Tension, fear, and anxiety can be acted out in play, and it can be replayed again and again while the child gradually comes to grasp, understand and master his emotions.

Yet, pressures from society and expectations of formal education encourage us to view with suspicion an early childhood education based on play. It’s easier for the non-professional to see the value of the formal approach to learning rather than one with play at its center. But, structured activities that are heavily adult-directed such as worksheets and drills can be de-motivating and not the most effective way for preschool children to learn and develop. They won’t give children the skills they need to be able to adapt to the pace of change and demands of the future.

Today’s children are preparing to enter a competitive, turbulent world of rapid change.   What are the skills they need?

  • Versatility and flexibility.
  • Imagination and creativity.
  • Self-motivation, so they’re able to make their own choices and act on them.
  • Social skills, which enable understanding of self and collaboration with others.
  • Courage and confidence, so they’re able to learn from their mistakes and try again.

I believe that helping children to develop these qualities is education, and play is the perfect context for mastering these life skills. What’s the best environment to nurture them in? At home, within the family. I encourage all families to play hard at their homework, and enjoy it together!

What’s the best homework?

  • Reading bed-time stories, talking about them and extending them into make-believe games.
  • Imaginative play. Make a dressing up box to keep at home that stimulates role-play and drama.
  • Playing games together as a family, sharing activities and hobbies. Children learn important social rules, like turn-taking and fairness, from games. They come to accept losing (someone has to) and learn to value failure as an opportunity to evaluate and try again.
  • Outings to special places. Planning together and preparation as a family are all part of the learning journey.
  • Family conversation. Let’s show our children that we value them by listening to them, letting them practice talking and sharing their ideas.

  Photo by Tanaphong Toochinda on Unsplash.

About the Author

Julia Gabriel founded Julia Gabriel Centre in 1983 and was an accomplished early learning and speech & drama teacher, author, storyteller, speaker, and lecturer. She graduated with Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Early Childhood Education from the University of South Australia. Julia was an Honorary Fellow of Guildhall School of Music & Drama and was awarded life membership of the school for her services to the field of speech and drama. 

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