What is Play? The Lifelong Benefits of Play

Kindergarten-aged boy building a ramp

In a refugee camp, children play on makeshift swings made from ropes attached to a shelter. Two little boys take a bath in a Styrofoam cooler, splashing the water and laughing. Here in this place where water, food, and joy are in short supply, children are children. They play in the most unlikely of circumstances.

Play is so fundamental to child development that it can be found in every culture throughout history. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child articulates that every child should have the right to play. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) states that play is an integral part of high-quality early childhood programs and the American Academy of Pediatrics has written a white paper on the subject. The benefits of play for young children are well-documented, but these benefits carry over to adulthood as well.

What is Play?

Schemes, styles and types of play vary with children’s ages and interests, but all play has several common characteristics, according to Dr. Rachel E. White for the Minnesota Children’s Museum:
  • Play is pleasurable.
  • Play is intrinsically motivated.
  • Play is process-oriented.
  • Play is actively engaged.
  • Play is non-literal.

Many of the skills children will need as adults to compete in a global economy are not easily taught in a typical classroom setting, yet play offers ideal experiences for learning the 6 Cs: collaboration, communication, content knowledge, critical thinking, creative innovation, and confidence, according to the Minnesota Children’s Museum. In this article, we explore some of the lifelong benefits of play.

The 6 C’s: 21st Century Skills in Education

Collaboration. Children building a block tower make decisions about how they’ll carry out their project. These children have learned how to ask questions, listen, consider priorities, and make joint decisions. These skills are critical for almost any career or job, as well as for personal relationships.

Communication. In a classroom setting, instruction and interactions are often driven by the teacher or the curriculum. During play, children are in the driver’s seat. They assign roles, proclaiming, for example, “I’ll be the mom. You be the puppy.” They make rules, they take turns, and frequently, they disagree. Through these experiences, they learn how to compromise, express needs, listen to others, and many other executive functioning skills that will translate into adult life.

Content Knowledge. Through play, children often explore content more deeply. After reading a book on ants, one child created an ant nest from cardboard tubes. She observed ants outdoors, drew pictures of them, and wrote stories about them. Through similar experiences, children develop lifelong interests and hobbies; sometimes these interests become careers.

Critical Thinking. Playful experiences encourage children to ask questions, consider hypotheses, and analyze information, allowing play to serve as a STEM learning opportunity. A child, for example, who is building a ramp with blocks must consider which shapes to choose, how to arrange them, and how high to build the ramp before it topples.

Creative Innovation. Very young children typically engage in “functional,” or “imitative” play, meaning that a car is always a car and a block is always a block. As children mature, their play becomes more symbolic or abstract. A pinecone can stand in for food. Children might use small rocks to represent money. This ability to use props and materials in imaginative play paves the way for creative innovation later in life.

Confidence. Play offers endless opportunity for experimentation. Children try out ideas, make mistakes, revamp their ideas, and try again. Consider a child learning how to ride a bike. For most children, this involves effort, focus, and a few skinned knees. But the payoff – the exhilaration and freedom of soaring down the street – is worth the effort. Through play, children learn to delay gratification and work through frustration to reach a goal.

How to Support Play

To encourage our children to reap the varied benefits of play, we need to create opportunities for play:

Allowing your children opportunities for freely chosen, open-ended play can have a lasting impact on development, and will benefit them in their future endeavors as adults.

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Kindergarten-aged boy building a ramp