Children and play go together. For most people who work with young children, play has a central place in childhood. The Association for Childhood Education International, for example, “recognizes the need for children of all ages to play and affirms the essential role of play in children’s lives” (p. 33). 1 Even so, play has recently become a focus of controversy, with some decision makers moving away from using play-based curricula in early childhood programs. Some adults may not understand that play has educational and developmental purposes. According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), “Play is an important vehicle for developing self-regulation as well as for promoting language, cognition, and social competence.”2
This FAQ introduces some aspects of play and lists resources for readers who want to explore the topic further.
Play is not just a way to fill time for children not old enough to go to school. Some people think of play as the “work” of children. Through play, children build the foundation for later learning as they solve problems and increase their understanding of themselves, other people, and the world around them.
For young children, “play" includes a variety of activities that are fun and interesting. These activities include quiet play, creative play, active play, dramatic play, games, and manipulative play. Play may be structured or unstructured. Structured play has rules or a specific way of doing things. Games—active games, card games, board games—are examples of structured play. Unstructured play includes activities such as dress-up play, doll play, block building, running and climbing, and riding trikes, among others.
A child may play alone or engage in social play by including other children or adults. Social play has a critical role in helping children learn to interact with others. Some research has identified stages of social play. Children pass through these stages as they grow, becoming capable of more interactive play as they develop. It is important to keep in mind that at any age, a child’s play may reflect an earlier stage:
Children’s play sometimes has less to do with other people than with finding out about the world. Young children naturally explore their environments in playful ways that help them understand the physical environment and their own bodies. This type of play is sometimes called sensorimotor play. As they vary their actions and interact with toys and other objects, children discover what their own muscles can do, and they gain practice in the movements that they need for everyday life. They also have opportunities to learn about gravity and other principles of the physical world.
Infants rapidly learn to play through their own actions and their contact with people around them. Babies often play by interacting with adults who talk, sing, and laugh with them, and help them explore the world around them. People are babies’ favorite playthings. Parents and caregivers can play peek-a-boo games, dance with babies in their arms, carry them from room to room, and crawl on the floor with them. The ability to take turns begins with such simple interactive play. Adults help foster a baby’s language learning when they smile and talk to the baby during playful interactions such as peek-a-boo or handing a toy back and forth. This kind of give-and-take is the foundation for oral language development because it shows that conversation involves responses to the words and actions of others.
Infancy is a good time for adults to begin reading and enjoying picture books with children. Adults can also listen to different kinds of music with babies and sing to them.
Babies benefit from floor time when they can safely roll around and explore. Once a baby begins to crawl, toys that can be pushed or rolled and chased across the floor encourage physical activity and interaction with other people.
Toys for infants should appeal to their different senses. Babies enjoy seeing a mobile hanging over their beds and pictures on the walls. They can begin to handle safe toys—soft ones to feel and chew on, and toys that rattle and make other sounds. Toys need to be safe to chew because many babies explore with their mouths.
Toddlers are continuing to develop both small and large motor skills. They enjoy manipulating objects—for example, putting things into a container and then dumping them out. They can also learn from messy play with water, sand, and soft clay or play dough. Many playful art activities support fine motor skills and encourage children’s creativity. They can begin to use large paint brushes, washable (nontoxic) paints, and crayons meant for beginners. Toddlers require close supervision and safe play materials in case they decide to taste them!
At this age, children’s interest in musical play often increases. Toddlers can begin to sing songs with adults or make their own music. Pots and pans make great percussion instruments! Toddlers may want to move with the music and begin to dance.
Toddlers also need opportunities for large muscle play. They enjoy bouncing, rolling, and throwing balls of different sizes, jumping on pillows, or making a house or fort out of a cardboard box. With supervision, toddlers can go outdoors for walks, play on climbing and riding toys, and use playground equipment sized for them.
Playing with adults or with other children can aid toddlers’ social-emotional growth and their language development. Taking turns with toys and taking turns while speaking during play can help toddlers see how to get along with others, and help them understand the “rules of conversation” that are basic to social interaction and language development. Playing with others also gives toddlers something to talk about!
Although they are busy exploring what’s around them, some toddlers show increasing interest in looking at picture books themselves or having someone read to them. Other toddlers may not want to sit and share a book yet because they are too busy investigating their world in other ways. Parents can try reading to them before naptime and bedtime.
A variety of toys and household objects encourage toddlers’ imaginative and dramatic play. Toddlers will enjoy large blocks; pots and pans; toy trucks, cars, and airplanes; clothes and hats for dress-up; dolls, toy animals, and housekeeping toys; and other interesting objects, such as boxes, bows, and wrapping paper. Riding toys that children can push with their feet also promote large motor play.
Preschool children’s play activities often build on the experiences they enjoyed as toddlers. With better developed motor and social skills, they enjoy active, supervised play by themselves and with others.
Preschool-age children are better able to use crayons, pencils and paints, safe scissors, and paste or glue. Preschoolers tend to be increasingly confident about their ability to run, jump, climb, ride tricycles, and play ball or other interactive games. They usually relish chances to play on playground equipment and to use their large muscles, indoors and outdoors.
Many preschoolers love to pretend and can cooperate to play together. Puppets and other props may be used for role playing and story telling. This imaginative play helps children act out interests and desires in a situation with intrinsic rules for behavior. Children’s pretend play is often related to stories that adults have read to them, so books can become important parts of a child’s play. Children should have access to books for sharing or looking at on their own. Trips to the library for children’s programs can begin a lifetime habit.
Preschool children continue to build with blocks and building toys. They may plan highways and buildings and add small cars and dolls to their structures. A parent or teacher can join in a preschooler’s play and suggest ways to expand it: “What if we built a bridge for your cars?” “What happens next?” “ Siena wants to play house, too. Let’s see, could she be a neighbor visiting?” Simple group games can be introduced, such as Simon Says or Follow the Leader. Some preschoolers will enjoy card and board games. They can begin to understand that game rules exist so that all players can enjoy playing together. They sometimes like to make up game rules or change existing ones; at other times they may want to make sure that others “play by the rules.” Parents and teachers will probably want to emphasize fun and cooperation rather than competition in games.
Open-ended play materials—those that rely more on the child’s imagination and manipulation—are better learning tools for preschoolers than those that have limited uses. For example, blocks can be used in many ways, while a toy that moves or makes noise while a child sits and looks at it is limited.
Television is part of many young children's lives, but watching TV can keep children from engaging in play. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that parents discourage all "screen time” (which includes television, video games, and computers) for children under age 2 and suggests that preschool-age children view not more than 1-2 hours a day.
Parents or teachers who choose to let children over age 2 view television should watch with them and make viewing an active experience. Adults can encourage the children to sing or dance along with the program and discuss it with them. Adults should also be aware that heavy media use has been linked to reduced physical activity, which may lead to obesity, and to less time spent looking at books or being read to, which may delay a child’s learning to read.
People who study children’s development have often suggested that video games and computer use simply do not match the learning needs of children under 3 years of age. At that age, children are still learning to coordinate all the parts of their bodies—their arms and legs, their eyes, their ears, the organs that affect balance, and so on. They change focus frequently and seem to need to move often. There is no good substitute for physical activity during this period of life. Video games and computer use are not good choices for promoting the essential skills that infants, toddlers, and preschoolers need to master—crawling, walking, talking, picking things up, taking turns, and getting to know other people.
Children under the age of 3 do better to spend time engaged in active play and social interaction rather than sitting in front of a computer. Computers can be a useful tool for older children when used in developmentally appropriate ways. When older children use the computer, adult supervision and rules related to both the length of time spent on the computer, and the programs or Web sites used, are important. Parents and teachers can encourage social interaction by putting two chairs in front of the computer so children can interact easily during computer activities.
1. Isenberg, Joan Packer, & Quisenberry, Nancy. (2002). Play: Essential for all children. Childhood Education, 79(1), 33-39.
2. National Association for the Education of Young Children. (2009). Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs serving children from birth through age 8.2009
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