Academic journal article Childhood Education

How Much Do We Know about the Importance of Play in Child Development?

Academic journal article Childhood Education

How Much Do We Know about the Importance of Play in Child Development?

Article excerpt

Why do children play? Play is not merely about fun; deeper meanings lie behind playful activities. Many classical theorists in the 19th and early 20th centuries studied the origins of play and tried to explain why it exists and the part it plays in human development (Saracho & Spodek, 1995). Herbert Spencer described play as the purposeless expenditure of buoyant strength (as cited in Peller, 1996; Saracho & Spodek, 1995). It also has been described as the product of superfluous energy left over when people's primary needs are met (Rubin, 1982). Because children's primary needs are met by parents, less of their energy is used for survival (Saracho & Spodek, 1995). According to this perspective, children love play because they have extra energy and look for ways to release it.

The most common explanation of the deeper purpose for play is the so-called practice or pre-exercise theory (Saracho & Spodek, 1995). As early as 1898, Groos thought of play as an essential need of childhood, because it can reinforce the instincts that allow children to prepare skills for the future (as cited in Rubin, 1982). Through play, children can learn much of what they will need to know to survive in the future. Play allows children to practice, elaborate on, and perfect skills before they become necessary for survival in adulthood (Rubin, 1982).

Although these theories may provide some insight into the origin and function of play in human society, they do not explore the true importance of play in children's daily lives, nor do they adequately explain how the quality of play influences children's development. Most classical theories are based on philosophical reflection and informal observation, rather than research (Saracho & Spodek, 1995).

Many modern psychological theorists provide different views of the role of play in children's development. Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) regarded play as cathartic. He believed that play could help children release negative feelings caused by traumatic events and substitute them with more positive ones (as cited in Saracho & Spodek, 1995). For example, a child who punishes a doll and then comforts it can work through and perhaps resolve negative feelings brought on by being punished by a parent. In other words, through play, children come to understand painful situations and find ways to substitute pleasurable feelings for unpleasant ones. Children master their covert thoughts and overt actions, and learn to interpret their experiences.

Psychoanalytic theory also teaches that infants and young children realize their helplessness and come to know they must rely on other people's goodwill to serve their needs. This realization of dependency often brings with it a fear of abandonment (Hughes, 1999). Play can help children reduce this fear and sense of vulnerability. For instance, children can play with miniature toys, reducing the overwhelming world of adults to a manageable size.

Psychoanalytic theorists, such as Erik Erikson (1902-1994), have discussed the development of play during a child's very early years. In the first year of life, children use their sensory and motor skills to explore their own bodies. In the second year, they progress to manipulating objects in the environment. These play activities can help children develop their self-esteem and sense of empowerment by allowing them mastery of objects. Gradually, as they play, children go beyond control of objects to mastery of social interactions with their peers (Hughes, 1999).

Piaget, a cognitive theorist, considered play to be a major tool for facilitating children's mental development (as cited in Hughes, 1999). In Piaget's stage theory, the changes in play through each stage parallel different levels of cognitive and emotional development (as cited in Saracho & Spodek, 1995). Piaget believed that people change their ways of thinking and behaving in order to adapt to their environments and that such adaptation is important for physical survival and psychological/ intellectual growth. …

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