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The Value of Children's Play for Development

Importance of Child’s Play Time

Most of us have heard the expression, "Play is a child's work." But what does that really mean? Play is how children come to understand the world by using all their senses - touching, tasting, smelling, hearing, and seeing. Learning as they mix batter, dig holes, explore a new texture, climb stairs, listen to classical music, crawl in tight spaces, and pour their own milk is key to child's development. They are learning about how their bodies work as they push and pull, jump and stretch, stir and swirl, roll and stand very still. The world is their laboratory, whether six weeks or six years, in which to engage their whole bodies in exploration and discovery.

The Importance of Children's Play for Development

As children play, they learn how to make friends. Allowing child's play to happen with peers is a great way for parents to help children make friends. While children play with others, they learn about emotions - what makes other children happy or sad. They learn how to work together towards a goal. They learn about leading and following and being part of a group. They learn to accept kindness and what to do when someone is unkind, both important lessons to grasp.

An important part of children's play is learning to interact with other children - learning to share, negotiate, lead, follow, listen, collaborate, plan, imagine, and show affection. In the 1930's, a child development scholar named Mildred Parten studied preschool children playing and developed descriptions of six stages of what a child's play looks like. These play time stages are still referred to in child development classes today to describe how children play with each other, becoming progressively more collaborative:

  • Unoccupied Play: Children just observe with no playing.
  • Solitary Play: Children play by themselves.
  • Onlooker Play: Children watch others play but do not join in.
  • Parallel Play: Children play side by side but don't interact. They may watch each other and do the same things.
  • Associative Play: Children are playing together but not in an organized way. They are interacting but don't appear to have a goal.
  • Cooperative Play: Children play together in an organized, coordinated way. They may take on roles ("You are it" or "I’ll be the monster."), or each child may have a job (one child is responsible for building the tower for the sand castle; another builds the moat; another gets water to fill the moat, etc.)

Children will go back and forth between the stages, but as they get older, the more likely that they will engage in associative or cooperative play.

Parenting Tips for Improving Child's Play Time

Children need open-ended, unscheduled times to explore and discover.  Learning happens most effectively with open-ended materials that can be used in multiple ways to nurture creativity in children. Try hands-on materials like blocks, Legos™, sand, water, dirt, child-sized wheelbarrows, small shovels, ramps, balls, and so on. Sometimes the purpose of the object for children's play is clear (like a doll is for holding and pretending to be a daddy). Sometimes the purpose of the object for play time only becomes clear in the child's creative hands - a stick could become a magic wand, the pole for a flag, something to stir with, or a pointer to show which way to go.

Child's play time can be enhanced by the presence of a caring adult. If you are that adult, set aside an hour as often as you can each week to spend some quality play time with your child and do exactly what he or she wants to do. Your child leads the play time and you follow. That means if your child wants you to sit in the sandbox with her, you do it. Or if he wants you to play the baby and he plays the mommy, you do it.  Or you play her favorite game or listen with rapt attention while she shares something that happened at school. Your presence enables another level of meaningful play to happen. Your child may use your attention to figure out a tough situation with a friend, re-enact a doctor's visit where he got a shot, or try something she wouldn't try on her own, like walking on a balance beam.

You may also want to help guide your child's play while on a playdate or at the playground. Of course we all want our children to move in the direction of associative and cooperative play, but that takes time. You can coach your child, "I see you looking at Aiden. Shall we go over and ask him if he'd like to climb with us?"

Children's play is a rich opportunity for one's development like learning new concepts and how to interact with others. Adults can follow a child's lead or offer gentle guidance, but play is at its richest when children are in charge.

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