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The Importance of Play in Early Childhood Development

Updated on July 21, 2014

In today's fast-moving world, it is sad to note children do not spend a lot playing not only playing by themselves but also with other children, both at homes and in schools.

While the argument the modern world makes it hard for parents to allow their children to play outside is true, parents can make use of indoor playing activities that are ideal inside the house.

This is because numerous studies have continually shown the benefits of play in a growing child. Play enables a child to become aware of his surrounding, to explore, to learn role playing (responsibility), to understand rules must be followed, to improve their cognitive, language and sensory development.

In many countries governments have incorporated playing into primary curriculum as the awareness of Early Childhood Development and Education (E.C.D.E) is increasing every year. In fact, United Nations has recognized play as a right of every child.

Therefore, it is imperative for parents and teachers to know when, how, where and what playing activities (physical and psycho-motor activities) to incorporate.

Definition of Play

There is no single-universal definition of play. In reality, the definitions try to explain what play involves and the outcome of play. This is especially the case with psychologists such as Lev Vygotsky and Anna Freud.

Play can be termed as an action that is repetitive which is carried out using familiar objects or materials in a familiar setting, and the outcome is a pleasurable experience.

Characteristics of Play

  • It is flexible
  • It is non-literal - It involves a lot of pretense
  • It is voluntary and does not carry with it any rewards apart from enjoyment.
  • It is spontaneous and is carried out for the pleasure of doing it.
  • Play may be carried out individually or in a group.
  • I is motivating, enjoyable and open-minded.
  • Lastly, it can be self-selected and self-directed.

Youth-soccer-indiana | Source

Importance of Play

  1. It helps a child to develop his gross and fine motor skills. This implies play aids in improving coordination among different parts of the body, and strengthens the muscles as it also a form of exercise.
  2. Play helps in the proper functioning and strengthening of the central nervous system and aids in reducing the level of fat in the body.
  3. It helps a child to explore and discover the environment around her. By nature children are curious, therefore when they use their senses and various body parts, and move; they are able to learn more about the environment around them.
  4. It builds confidence in children and self-esteem as they learn to be independent and in control including the fact it enables them to master self-control. This includes problem solving and how to cope with failure when they don't succeed in a given play activity.
  5. Play enhances language development. During play children are able to interact with each other, learn new vocabulary words, ask questions and answer questions, give instructions or directions and to express their feelings or what they think.
  6. It enables children to relax or clam down. Play can enable children to relax from something that is troubling them or calm in case they are angry.
  7. Children are able to develop social skills through playing. The skills range from being able to sympathize, empathize and understand other children. It also helps them to learn how to share with others and the importance of cooperation.
  8. Play enables children to have an opportunity to sleep well at night as they will have been tired of playing for a long time.
  9. It improves their appetite. After playing children tend to be more hungry than sitting at home doing nothing.
  10. Play enhances their imagination, for example, in role playing when they imitate certain people or things.
  11. Lastly, it enhances their observation skills, how to classify or group things, how to count and it improves their reasoning capacity.

Classification of Play

Play is broadly classified into two groups:

a) Free Play Activities

This is whereby children choose which play activities to engage in out of their own free will. However, it is important for an adult to be there to ensure their safety and encourage them to participate.

b) Directed Activities

This is whereby an adult guides the children in different play activities as the children do not know all the play activities. This type of play ensures shy children and those withdrawn for various reasons participate

Children Playing Playground Children Carousel Child
Children Playing Playground Children Carousel Child | Source

Types of Play

a) Physical Play

This involves use of the small and large muscles. This level of physical play occurs between the age of 0-3 years and it is usually rough. This is because they are not mentally and physically matured. At this stage they cannot use their minds in play.

b) Cognitive Play

This type of play involves using of the mind/intellect and thinking. There are three types of play:

Sensori Play (Birth to 2 years)

In this type of play the infant repetitively uses muscle movements which can either involve muscles or not. As the infant uses his senses and moves, he learns the physical reality of the environment, and enables them to explore and discover facts about the environment.

Pretend Play (2-4 years)

This is whereby children use items to signify something else while playing, for example, using a toy. By the age of 2-3 years a child will use one object to signify another object, for example, a box can be used as a drum.

Dramatic Play (5-8 years)

In this type of play children pretend to be certain people or things. They play out the roles of the people they have imitated, for example, mother and father.

Children at Play: The Importance of Play in Early Childhood Development CLIP

Social Play

This type of play helps in establishing social relationships. There are five types of social play:

Solitary Play (2-3 years)

This is when the child play by himself in isolation to others with or without the use of materials.

Parallel Play (2-3 years)

In this type of play children play side by side and can use each other's objects but stilll remain interdependent (on their own). There is no interaction or communication between them. They only talk to themselves or the objects they are playing with. At this level children are living in their own world (egocentric).

Associative Play (3-6 years)

This is when children talk to each other and share their objects but the objectives of the play are not realized, therefore the play is not coordinated. This means their activities are not harmonized - no taking turns, the activity is not organized and the child will do what he/she wishes. Therefore, the interest of the group does not dictate the individual child's interest.

Cooperative Play (6-8 years)

At this level children organize themselves, they feel they belong to the group and have a common goal to be developed. Activities are coordinated or harmonized and they take turns as each is assigned his/her role and responsibilities are divided.

On looker Play

This is whereby a child watches other children playing but does not actively participate in the play physically. His/her only role in the play is that of a spectator.

Soldier and Afghan children play nicely
Soldier and Afghan children play nicely | Source

In conclusion, "Play is not about completing one task at a time but about dealing with multiple tasks such as relationships, activities, problem solving, other peoples’ ideas and creating companionship and enjoyment, all at the same time.

In this way, play strengthens and supports the connections between the neurons of the brain and provides a rich opportunity for children to grow and develop." (Early Childhood Ireland)


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