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Impact of Play on Child Development: Child's Play

Updated on November 12, 2017
Patrick Patrick profile image

Patrick has been working as a freelance writer for the past 3 years

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Child's play and development

A majority of studies conducted on child development have shown play to play a crucial role in their development by contributing to their physical, social, cognitive and emotional well being. While play is essential when it comes to the development of children, it is worth noting that there are two categories of child's play including structured and unstructured play. With the changes in lifestyle, family structures and increased attention given to academics, a good number of parents may feel that it is necessary to balance between child's learning and play time, which in turn results in some parents planning and initiating the games that their children will play. Although it is necessary to monitor and control children's activities from time to time, studies have found significant benefits of unstructured play for the physical and cognitive development of children. For this paper, I will discuss the impacts of unstructured play on children between the ages of 1 and 2 and 4 and 5.

According to Peter Gray, a professor of psychology at Boston College, unstructured play is the type of play in which a child/children undertake themselves, direct on their own and has its own end. Children may become disinterested with structured play or other activities that parents may feel are beneficial to the children. With such types of play, the child's development may even be hindered given that the child may not be fully invested. For this reason, it is important to allow children to initiate and develop their own games.

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One and two year olds

Children between the ages of 1 and 2 are toddlers. Some of the development milestones achieved by children in this age group include such things as taking the first step, smiling and waving. During this period, children are aware of themselves and their surrounding and have a desire to explore new objects around them and people. Some of the games that the child may start engaging in during this period may involve trying to play with such animal as cats and dogs, trying to imitate people around him/her (such as trying to run, wave of talk on the phone) sand and water play, pushing around objects and throwing among others (Infantandtoddlerforum.org, 2013). During this period, the toddlers are still trying to walk and talk. However, they are aware of themselves and their surrounding and have a strong desire to explore their surroundings. These conditions form the basis of the games they want to get involved in and thus the physical and cognitive development (CDC, 2017). As they push around such objects as toy cars around the house, throw around the toys and other objects around the house such as pillows and try running around, toddlers are engaging in physical activities, which is important for their physical development. Through physical activities, toddlers get to improve their strength, endurance as well as maintain healthy weight. It is therefore essential for toddlers to engage in physical activities for proper physical development. On the other hand, play by toddlers, which may include imitating and playing around with toys, identifying pictures as well as playing around with other children is important in that it allows them to learn to talk and even learn to solve small problems among other learning opportunities, which is important for their cognitive development.

Three and five years old

Children between the ages of 3 and 5 are still in their preschool years. They are older than toddlers are in the pretend play are. Children in this age group can be anyone they wish to be, and this is made evident by the games they play with their toys and other improvised objects. For instance, they can pretend to be doctors, astronauts on the moon and scientists among others. With increased creativity at this age, they can also be seen trying to make things from a variety of objects, painting and coloring among others. Unlike toddlers, who are just starting to learn about their surrounding, 3 to 5 year old are more creating and their play allows them to develop their interests (Jacobs, 2014).

Impact of play on development of 1 and 2 years old children

Toddlers are younger children of between 1 and 2 years of age. They are also still learning about their surrounding and most objects around them from keys to a cup can serve as toys. Toddlers can play with other children or show a little sign of selfishness given that they would like to have all objects that look interesting to them. Regardless, they are very active as they try to explore everything around them and imitate those around them as they learn more about their surroundings. Therefore, children in this age group are more likely to go after what interests them more than what a parent may give them. For instance, even though a parent may buy a good looking toy for the child, the child may prefer playing around with a set of keys given that they appear more appealing to him/her. According to Piaget, toddlers will play with everything they can find (Piaget, 1962), which is why they do not realize that some things like knives are dangerous. However, this is also an opportunity for them to learn. If a child, while playing, touches a hot surface (such as kettle) the child learns not to touch such a surface again by building memories. Toddler's playing with the face of an adult (pulling ears, nose, looking at teeth etc) is also an example of child's play, but also shows how they explore their surroundings. Another example of child's play (unstructured) includes the child observing and imitating the parent or others around him, scribbling, flipping through books/pages, petting and trying to talk to pets (dogs, cats etc) playing with water when bathing or water on the ground or playing with sand outside. The list of what a toddler can do when they are on their own is endless.

Unstructured play for toddlers is of great significance to their development. According to the Department of Health (DH) toddlers should actually be encouraged to engage in a variety of physical activity and play for toddlers including walking, and other unstructured, active types of play. Rather than trying to keep these children seated and relaxed or dictating what they should do, parents are encouraged to allow them to form their own play (in a safe environment) and become actively engaged. For toddlers, this has both physical and cognitive benefits (Copple & Bredekamp, 2009). By trying to force some type of activity on the child, they will become disinterested. This may result in the child being only partially invested in the activity or completely refusing to participate completely, which would in turn mean that the child does not get enough physical activity through their preferred play. However, by allowing the child their desired play (safe play) then the child is actively engaged and invested, which helps them build strength endurance and skill in the process. This has also been shown to help toddlers improve competence and co-ordination and they develop. Being fully invested in a given play, they child also becomes more physically active, which has been shown to help them maintain a healthy weight. For toddlers, as is the case for a good number of teenagers, a sedentary lifestyle is a risk factor for overweight, which is why unstructured play is encouraged (Reilly, 2008). Physical skills for toddlers are also acquired gradually and sequentially through play. However, they will develop given physical skills at different rates depending on the opportunities they get to engage in unstructured play. For instance, by repeated imitation, the toddler can gradually learn how to hold a pen, a spoon, and write out letters well. However, the child can only learn to do this faster if they are interested in such plays than when they are being pushed to learn.

Through play, toddlers learn a lot about their surrounding, which is demonstrated through their behavior. For instance, by imitating, they start trying to speak as adults, learn that a remote is used for television while a phone is for talking or listening to others speak. Here, the toddler uses the experience she/he had with a variety of objects around them and what they have seen others do to solve small problems (Lockhart, 2010). For instance, having spilled some milk, a two year old is likely to find a towel and try wiping the spilt milk as they have seen others do. While this may still be play for them, this behavior shows that the child is learning and can use experiences to solve some problems.

Impact of play on development of 3 to 5 years old children

Children of between 3 and 5 years old are in the preschool category. Having grown a little, they understand their surrounding a little better and have developed a liking for given activities than others. For this age group, unstructured play ma involve painting and coloring, riding two- wheeled bikes (with stabilizers) sketching and role playing. Unlike toddlers, preschoolers are also more social, which means that they prefer playing with others whether they are competing (running etc) or role playing (Ginsburg, 2007). With the ability to communicate more clearly, they are also well able to co-operation with each other, assigning roles to each other and making decisions during play. For this age-group, unstructured play is particularly important for cognitive development. While is helps with physical development, allowing them to remain physically fit and develop a culture that encourages a healthy lifestyle, play for preschoolers allows them to become social and learn to interact with others. This is particularly important for this age group given that failure to achieve this during this age may result in difficulties to interact with others socially as they grow. Moreover, it allows them to learn from each other, solve problems together and most importantly, develop their skills in their individual interests (Shannon, 2010). For instance, through role play, the child may become good at a given sport, become god at coloring and/or painting, be able to put various objects together to make something or identify given animals having looked at some books. Through such play as role playing, children get to talk, listen to each other and therefore communicate to reach given conclusions rather than using emotions, develop language further and use experiences to solve more complex problems (simple additions and subtractions etc) as compared to toddlers.

Last words

Play in early childhood is of great significance when it comes to physical and cognitive development. By allowing these children to actively participate in activities of their interests, they become more invested and become active participants, which helps them become more physically active and become quick learners through active participation. This proves more beneficial than structured play that may see the child losing interest and even worse not getting an opportunity to do what they love and become great at it. Unstructured play among young children should therefore be encouraged given that it has several benefits that will see children achieve appropriate physical and cognitive development,


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    • Patrick Patrick profile image
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      Patrick 7 months ago from Nairobi

      Thank you Liz. It's all about balance.

    • Liztalton profile image

      Liztalton 7 months ago from Washington

      I have a one year old and he tries playing with everything he sees. While I know he's just learning about the world around him, it's hard to baby proof everything. Great hub!

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