What is the importance of play to young children? Play is all-consuming, and it is not surprising that play is a major contributor to growth and development for young children, especially during the toddler and preschool years.
Play helps a child establish a positive self-concept. For young children, the greatest satisfaction and pleasure they experience is achieved through play. Playing is the way that children build confidence. In their play, they are able to do things their way, according to their own views.
Adults don’t tell them how to play, and their play generally has few rules if any to follow. When children are playing, there shouldn’t be a right or a wrong, and there is generally no pressure for them to succeed in their play. In this set up, if parents are not controlling their play, children can take risks without worrying about failing and stretch their own skills and capabilities.
Research shows that play is a key component to the development of a child’s emotional well-being. Children who play are happier, even when they aren’t playing. The same is not true for children who do not play very much or at all.
There also seems to be a correlation between children who play a lot, and children’s social abilities. Basically, children who get along with other children tend to have more friends. As a result, they tend to have a better time overall and the playground, at parties, and out in society. Playing helps children develop language.
Language starts for babies, not with words, but with interactions in playtime. Responses actions and responses our communication, as in taking toys or responding to hand gestures.
Children also use language in play. Young children who are learning to speak use repetitive sounds, or words and their own play. One British researcher noted that during play, the children he observed tended to use more complex language in his play than they did in communicating with adults.
Why does this happen during play? This goes back to something we’ve already talked about in this article, that play fosters confidence. During play, the child has no fear of failure and feels no drive or desire to satisfy someone else, and this gives them the freedom to try out things that they might not otherwise try.
Play also helps children think in complex ways and solve problems. While children are playing, there is a ton going on in their brains. Complex concepts are being debated inside a child’s mind, as the child tries to figure out how things work, how are things related, and what can be done with them.
Young children use play to learn about cause and effect, what happens when I do something? Children also learn the limits of their own bodies and their own strengths. Play is how children learn about the world, if a rock sinks or floats when they put it in water for example.
It is during play that children first work out their own ideas their own thoughts, guesses, and answers to their own problems. I don’t think people talk enough about playing pretend. Pretend takes play to another level, because it involves their mind so much. The fact that a child is using one thing to represent something else is huge and a milestone in their development.
It becomes even more amazing when you see two children involved in the same pretend play, because not only are they using their minds to come up with the setup that is complex and rich, but they are sharing it with each other and communicating about it. There is nothing more awesome than seeing two children or more do this.
Play is also a place where children learn to express their feelings and even resolve them. Children see play as an opportunity for the child to be safe, and calm. Even if what is going on inside their minds and their bodies is not calm, their play is a safe place because children control the play and they are masters of the play world. This can be a good place to let out emotions or thoughts that they don’t have control over. Sometimes they don’t even understand what the emotions/feelings are inside them that they want to let out. That release often happens during play.
It is fairly common for children at the preschool age two play with and experiment with themes involving control. And no wonder, a young child of age four and five probably has very little control otherwise in their life. This is how they prepare to go on to be masters of their own world as they grow into kindergarten first grade and beyond.
Play enhances and encourages creativity. However, this is one area that is easily influenced by adults. In situations where children are given freedom to play on their own without the control or rules of adults, they tend to be more creative overall.
But the more adults tend to get involved with the play, creativity and spontaneity can be drastically reduced. The more structured a child’s life is, the fewer opportunities they have to be creative, and we tend to see creativity diminishing as children go on through school and have more of their day structured at a desk or in organized sports.
Play also helps children develop social abilities and skills. As noted above, in playing with other children, kids tend to test out themes of being dominant and submissive, meaning someone is in control and someone is following along.
In addition to control, children also test out themes of sharing, cooperating, helping, and coordination. This is also where a lot of conflicts come up, and while these conflicts can be disruptive and not enjoyable for the kids or for the care providers who are watching the kids, the conflicts are really great opportunities for children to learn how to work together to resolve them.
How do you create a welcoming atmosphere for play? There are many ways to do this, and it doesn’t necessarily involve expenditure of a lot of money.
One of the most important things you can do is set up an environment where the children can be relaxed and can play in a safe way without too much involvement with parents.
If parents are constantly hovering trying to keep kids safe, to keep them out of a particular area they don’t want them to be in, or if the parents don’t want the kids to get dirty or make too much noise, it will be very hard for children to really play.
You can make a place in the yard or in the house that is dedicated to the child, so that the child can play without the parent having to worry about her getting into something that belongs to someone else or breaking something. This could be the child’s bedroom or a corner in the main room, or even in the backyard.
If you want to, you can also go out of your way to find really interesting toys or props that the child will find very stimulating, such as dress up clothes, unusual utensils or tools, or even materials that a child can use to make a fort.
As a parent, if you want to encourage a child to play more, you should take the time to recognize what the child is doing in a positive way without leading them to do it in a certain way.
If your child is struggling to play independently, and you would like to encourage them to play more, you can either take them to places where their other children who are playing independently, or you can model on your own the behavior you want them to have. You can tap into your own playfulness and Imagination and do things in the house that will maybe inspire the child to embark on adventures of pretend on her own.
Children love to hear about your childhood, so you could tell the child stories about things that you did when you were small. Take some time to sit and daydream, and share some of those daydreams that you have with your child. Set aside some time to just go out and look at the sky and allow your brain to wonder and support them as they learn to do the same.
In any case, when you participate in your child’s play, it is very important that you do not take it over, and that you let the child lead the play time. The best types of play are the kind where the child is in control, and she can direct what happens and how it happens.
If the adult is the one controlling the play, there will not be nearly as many benefits to the child. If the child demands that you participate in their play, make sure to take a secondary role and ask them to direct you. Have them tell you what to pretend you are wearing and what to pretend you are doing, let them set up the props and then rather than telling them what will happen, ask them what is happening then or what will happen next.
I know I’ve said this already, and I can’t say it this enough. For the child to learn from the play, they must be in charge to experience the sense of competence we want them to get from it.
Before you go, check out another great post from one of our many Mom Advice Line contributors:
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- How Do I Help My Child Handle Jealousy?
- Should I Put Sunscreen on My Baby?
- Ups and Downs of a Single Parent Family
- What? Castor Oil is Dangerous?
- How to Be a Good Dad
Emily Anderson is a mother of three children, ages 8, 6, and 3. Located in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, Emily is a full-time mom and part-time blogger, jumping in front of the screen when the kids are occupied. She can be reached through the Contact Us page.