The skills children learn through play in the early years set the stage for future learning and success from the kindergarten classroom to the workplace.
(R.E.White – 2012)

Lev Vygotsky (see post), claimed that play is a leading factor in a child’s cognitive development. Over the last few decades, research has continued to back up this statement. In fact, play has been recognised as such an important part of the healthy development of children, that the United Nations High Commission on Human Rights (1989), recognised play as a fundamental right of every child.

In addition, the American Academy of Paediatrics, considered play to be so fundamental to a child’s development, that they issued a White Paper on the topic (Ginsberg, 2007/R.E.White, 2012).

The research has again and again demonstrated that play forms a crucial part of our children’s cognitive development. It develops language, problem-solving skills, creativity and social competence, to name but a few. Yet, despite the research and the powerful recognition from the above bodies, the time given to children to play continues to decrease. Today, children play eight hours less per week than children did twenty years ago (Elkind, 2008).

What is play?

Play may seem like a simple activity where children are just having fun. It has however, been shown to be a complex process, and one that has an important impact on all aspects of a child’s life.

There is no one single definition of play amongst researchers. Some examples that have been put forward however are:

i) Scales et al (1991): that absorbing activity in which healthy young children participate with enthusiasm and abandon...

ii) Csikszentmihaly, M (1981): a subset of life……an arrangement in which one can practice behaviour without dreading the consequences..

iii) Garvey, C (1977): An activity which is 1) Positively values by the player 2) Self-motivated 3) Freely chosen 4) Engaging.

The importance of play for preschoolers

Play provides all the requisites required for the healthy development of a child. As well as developing their cognitive skills, it also develops their socio-emotional growth. Through play, they learn to interact with others and how to compromise and negotiate. Acquiring skills in these areas will be of infinite benefit into adulthood.

My daughter tells me on a regular basis that she needs to be ‘careful’ with what she says to a girl at her preschool. If she says the ‘wrong’ thing, the girl will say that she’s not her friend anymore. At this stage, it’s the most hurtful thing for my daughter to hear. I am tempted to tell her that she doesn’t have to be careful, that she doesn’t have to tread on egg shells with this individual. But I remind myself that this is an important learning curve for her. She is learning that people are different and our interactions with people will adapt according to who we are engaging with. And this is a valuable, if at times painful, lesson to learn in acquiring effective social skills.

The research has also shown that it is through play, that children develop a continuing love and desire to learn. In play, a child has, control over their learning which encourages motivation, desire and mastery (Erikson, 1985, Hurwitz, 2003).

Moreover, children learn to find the knowledge they need through exploring, discovery and testing hypothesis. They also take on challenges and become confident in their ability to solve problems (Erickson, 1985).

Play builds the foundation for a lifetime of learning
(R.E. White, 2013)

How play develops language and literacy

Through imaginative play, children are able to practice their use of language. Research by Fekonja et al (2005/cited in White’s paper), showed that when children are engaged in this type of play, they use more complex language and speak in longer sentences:

Early pretence is related to later literacy outcomes including reading comprehension and the ability to communicate clearly through speech and writing.
(R.E. White, 2013)

Furthermore, research by Moreton (1991), stated that the language of Kindergarten children had a positive correlation with the amount of time they spoke with other children during imaginative play at three years-old.

Imaginative play has also been shown to enhance language and literacy by developing the child’s ability to create stories in a way that is comprehensible to others, as well as incorporating other children’s ideas in a way that makes sense.

How much should children play?

A lot would seem to be the answer! Christie and Wardle (1992), claim that children need significant blocks of time to play. They argue that by giving children short blocks of time, may lead to them having to halt unfinished dramatisations or constructive play just when they are getting into it.

This would certainly make sense when you consider the time children need just for planning their play. Christie and Wardle argue that if this situation happens too regularly, then children may steer away from taking part in sophisticated play and opt for something easier which will take less time. This would fit in with Bodrova’s research (see post), that showed that today’s children are less mature in their play.

Christie and Wardle also argue that shorter amounts of time to play, diminishes many of the benefits associated with play, such as, negotiation, persistence and problem-solving. They advocate 30-60 minutes or more for indoor and outdoor play.

Again, current practice seems to fly in the face of such research. A recent article in, The Atlantic, reported on a group of mums who is fighting to pass legislation in America, that would guarantee children at elementary schools at least 20 minutes of daily free play. The article highlights how much free play time has decreased in the early 2000s. It also reports on the experiments carried out showing the positive effects that sufficient recess time has on children in terms of both cognitive development and behaviour.

The very fact that parents are having to argue for a daily 20 minutes of free play time, seems deeply sad to me.

Closing Comments

The wealth of research, the United Nations High Commission on Human Rights (1989), the White Paper from the American Academy of Paediatrics, all provide compelling evidence to say that sufficient time to play should be the right of every child. Yet, today’s world is not reflecting this. R. White (2012), noted that the skills developed by preschoolers during play are, crucial for success in the 21st century: that to achieve success in a global economy, people need to be, socially adept and highly creative.

But today’s parents are faced with increasing academic pressure for their children, often resulting in play time being replaced with preparing for tests; even at the kindergarten stage:

….parents who aim to give their preschoolers a leg up are led to believe that flash cards and educational ‘toys’ are the path to success. Our society has created a false dichotomy between play and learning
(R. White 2012)

If you are interested in reading R.White’s paper on children and play, you can click on the second reference. Similarly, if you are interested in reading the article in, The Atlantic, you can click on the first reference.

If you have any experiences/comments that you would like to share based on this post, then I’d love to hear about them in the comments section below.