Play and Children

It is widely accepted that play forms an essential part of a child's development. It impacts on every aspect of their growth, from their social and language development to their motor skills. Play is a crucial part of the learning process and contributes to the development of healthy, creative minds.

The importance of play has been studied by researchers in just about every field that covers child development, from psychiatry to anthropology through to education. Each has found that in young mammals - and humans are no exception - play is not simply a frivolous or fun activity; it is almost as important as food and sleep. The benefits are broad and well defined: neuroscientists believe play is central to emotional as well as physical health, while psychoanalysts think it is important in mastering emotional trauma.

Notably, Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) argued that play could help a child release negative feelings. Freud believed this allowed them to exchange these emotions for more positive ones. For example, if a child punishes a doll and later comforts it, the child may be resolving their own negative feelings about being punished by a parent.

By reflecting the outside world through play, a child is learning to interpret their experiences. For children, the world of adults may be overwhelming. By playing with miniature toys, they learn to overcome their sense of fear and vulnerability by reducing their world to a size that is manageable.

Some games may be introduced to a child through their culture and are a vital source of information about their environment. This is when play can help the child's social development. It can enhance their understanding of the world around them and help them to learn social roles and rules as well as providing information about a socially shared system of symbols. Children can learn much about people and customs through indicators that are embedded in play.

Different types of play develop different skills. For example, research has shown that boys who owned unusual toys were more likely to utilize their imagination and this resulted in a better developed creativity. Conversely, games that had only one outcome, a puzzle for instance, developed problem-solving skills but were shown to dissuade a child from exploring alternative solutions because they were focused only on the correct answer. A balance of different playtime activities will aid a child's all-round development.

Playing serves an obvious physical purpose, such as allowing children to naturally release their superfluous energy, building strength and heart and lung performance, and lowering cholesterol and blood pressure. It also allows the child to develop and refine motor skills and awareness of their body. It is a natural way for a child to work out what are his or her physical capabilities.

There are also positive neurological effects on the child that enjoys the intense sensory and physical stimulation associated with play. An active brain makes permanent neurological connections (called cerebellar synapses) that are critical to learning; thus, playing helps to form the brain's circuits. The function of play must not be underestimated; an underactive brain has significant negative effects such as the regression of brain development (neurons that are not used may die.) So the act of playing develops the skills that are important to a child's long-term survival.

Play develops over time and certain types of play are relevant to different stages of childhood. For pre-school children, it primarily involves gross-motor (exercise) play, make-believe (symbolic) play and construction play. Exposure to both visual and auditory stimuli is also important. As children learn to recognize colors, shapes, sizes and sounds, they also learn to match and compare and begin to develop their ability to group things together.

A child's spatial awareness can be cultivated using blocks and puzzles. When they build with blocks, they are also building their understanding of space. As the child puts the blocks together or construct a puzzle, they are filling space and later in their development, they add to this by building to greater heights.

In children of school age, organized games begin to have appeal. This increases as the child progresses from pre-logical to logical thought and play becomes more realistic and structured. At this point, the child may have a greater need for order and this is realized through games that require rules (this is particularly important for boys.)

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Children at Play: An American History
Howard P. Chudacoff.
New York University Press, 2007
The Musical Playground: Global Tradition and Change in Children's Songs and Games
Kathryn Marsh.
Oxford University Press, 2008
Children at Play: Clinical and Developmental Approaches to Meaning and Representation
Arietta Slade; Dennie Palmer Wolf.
Oxford University Press, 1994
Play and Exploration in Children and Animals
Thomas G. Power.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2000
Child's Play: Myth, Mimesis and Make-Believe
L. R. Goldman.
Berg Publishers, 1998
Just Playing? The Role and Status of Play in Early Childhood Education
Janet R. Moyles.
Open University Press, 1989
Play, Dreams and Imitation in Childhood
Jean Piaget; C. Gattegno; F. M. Hodgson.
W. W. Norton, 1962
Play in Early Childhood: From Birth to Six Years
Mary D. Sheridan.
Routledge, 1999 (2nd edition)
Play in Child Development and Psychotherapy: Toward Empirically Supported Practice
Sandra W. Russ.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004
Play: Essential for All Children. (A Position Paper of the Association for Childhood Education International)
Isenberg, Joan Packer; Quisenberry, Nancy.
Childhood Education, Vol. 79, No. 1, Fall 2002
The Development of Play in Infants, Toddlers, and Young Children
Casby, Michael W.
Communication Disorders Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 4, Summer 2003
Developmental Assessment of Play: A Model for Early Intervention
Casby, Michael W.
Communication Disorders Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 4, Summer 2003
Handbook of Infant, Toddler, and Preschool Mental Health Assessment
Rebecca DelCarmen-Wiggins; Alice Carter.
Oxford University Press, 2004
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 24 "Games Children Play: Observing Young Children's Self-Regulation across Laboratory, Home, and School Settings"
"Give Us a Privacy": Play and Social Literacy in Young Children
Ghafouri, Farveh; Wien, Carol Anne.
Journal of Research in Childhood Education, Vol. 19, No. 4, Summer 2005
Children and Play in the Holocaust: Games among the Shadows
George Eisen.
University of Massachusetts Press, 1988
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