By - Sean Saenz
For the past two years I have worked at Pinecrest School as an afternoon coach for the kindergarten through eighth grade children, I play with and help the teachers at all grade levels there, especially with the toddlers and infants. Since I have been involved in this class and the discussions concerning the development of the child I thought it would be interesting to do a little research on play and the impact it has on infants and toddlers.
The research published throughout the twentieth century and into present day supports a positive relationship between play and social, emotional, physical, and cognitive development, play and learning and play and academic development. Play also has therapeutic powers helping children to adjust to unique circumstances, and to heal from trauma. Perhaps the most compelling evidence of the power of play for children’s development is the recent studies by neuroscientists that show an overall connection between play, learning and development. Most of the billions of neurons in the child’s brain are present for the purpose of physical, cognitive, social, and emotional and language development. Studies also show that play deprivation in early childhood can result in devastating consequences for development. Play does not take away from learning and academic success rather than play provides the framework or the early experiences essential for later development and success in school. Play begins early in infancy, first starting with sensory mechanisms of mouthing, sucking, banging, staring and grasping but quickly emerging into
active exploration and early play. Soft surfaces for crawling, objects for exploration and encouraging talk by adults result in rapid development. By age 2 children are moving about and manipulating objects with growing levels of proficiency. Their motor skills include large motor (walking, running, hopping) and small motor (throwing, catching, and kicking) and stability (balance), all dependent on physical development, experience, and practice. Preschoolers develop through play at a very rapid rate in all developmental domains. Pretend play is at its peak. Motor activity of all types is more complex and greater levels of challenge are needed. Children need play to develop their muscle strength and control. Active social play not solitary play correlates with peer acceptance and a healthy self-concept (Nelson et al., 2008) and may help regulate emotions (Sutton-Smith, 2011) – something adults might remember when they prefer young children to be quiet. Among non human primates deprivation of social play warps later life, rendering some monkeys unable to make friends, even to survive with other monkeys (Herman et al.. 2011; Suomi 2004). Another type of play is sociodramatic play in which children act out various roles and plots taking on any identity. They can be a mother, father, sister, brother or any story book character they may have seen. Sociodramatic play allows children to explore and rehearse roles, learn how to explain their ideas and convince playmates to agree, practice emotional regulation by pretending to be afraid, angry, brave and so on. Sociodramatic play builds on pretending and social interest, both which emerge in toddlerhood.
Although Piaget and Vygotskians theories are slightly different, they both agree that play stimulates the cognitive development of a child. An example would be, if a child dresses up and plays policeman he is doing something he already knows which supports Piaget theory and if a child’s play teaches him something new, that supports Vygotskys theory of cognitive development. Play in early childhood education has been around since early 400 B.C. Philosopher Plato (428-348 B.C.) founded a school in Athens which would shape the child’s future life. The curriculum would include games, music, stories and drama.
I think it is up to the teacher to take responsibility to make sure the play area is safe both inside and out. You can assess children while observing them at play for appropriate interaction with other children on how they are using their fine motor and interacting with each other. Children learn best in an environment which allows them to explore, discover and play. When children are at play they are using their language, cognitive and fine motor skills. Play is a very important part of the early childhood education process. I believe through play children work at problem solving, which involves mental, physical, and social skills- while playing they can try out pretend solutions and see how they work out, if they make a mistake, those mistakes can’t hurt them as they would in their real life. They could reverse power roles and be an adult and tell another child what to do or another adult for that matter. Play enables children to deal with fears, anxieties in a powerful way (Frost Wortham & Reifal 2008). Play provides a safety valve,
when we pretend as children we can do things we can’t do in real life. Creative play is a central activity in the lives of healthy children. Play makes children feel powerful as they create an environment and manipulate it. When I watch a child play with blocks, dolls, or actions figures I see how they have a sense of empowerment. Play also provides for cognitive development that educational toys don’t always address. Cognitive development is tied in with physical and social interactions in the preschool years as children are constructing a view of the world and discovering concepts. Adults think we need to teach young children, it is true we need to set examples for young children and give young children the appropriate space so they can play and learn. I think creative play is the natural part of the make-up of every healthy child. Children no longer have the wide open space to explore; playing outside with your neighbors doesn’t happen anymore, sitting in front of the television for hours does. We need to set limits of screen media and commercial culture an era where toys come from television and media companies sell video games as brain builders for babies per Susan Linn author of “The case for make believe” lays out the inextricable links between play, creativity, health, showing us, how and why to preserve the space for make believe that children need to be happy to become productive adults. Preschool and kindergarten children are in school with computerized learning and assessment. Physical education and recess is being eliminated, new schools have no play grounds. So when parents see children running and playing outdoors, and parents think their children are running around doing nothing I think the teacher should explain that children at play are active explorers of the environment as they create their own experiences and get to understand it. In this way they are participating in their own development. We need to work together to create a society that nurtures make believe. Every opportunity we provide for children to play is a gift.
I like this quote taken from a book about play written by Stuart Brown.-“Like digestion and sleep, play in its most basic form proceeds without a complex intellectual framework.” He then describes play in properties and breaks it down which I thought most fascinating.
1. Apparently purposeless- It is not done for survival, it doesn’t get money, it has no practical value, and it is done for its own sake
2. Voluntary- it is not obligatory or required by duty.
3. Inherent attraction- It is fun! It makes you feel good, it is a cure for boredom, it provides psychological arousal (behavioral scientists say something exciting).
4. Freedom from time.
5. When are fully engaged in play we lose a sense of time.
6. Diminished consciousness of self- In imaginative play, we can be a different self. We are experiencing what psychologists Michaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow”.
7. Improvisational potential- We are locked into a rigid way of doing things. The act of play itself may be outside of “normal” activities. The result is that we stumble upon new behaviors, thoughts, strategies, movements or ways of being. We see things in different ways and have fresh insights- for example- A child playing tea party might come to understand that good manners and social conversations can provide safety and power rather than something imposed merely to make her feel comfortable. These insights weren’t the reason they played, but they arrived at the result of it.
8. Continuation desire- We desire to keep doing it, the pleasure of the experience derived that desire. We find ways to keep doing it. If something threatens to stop the fun, we improvise new rules or conditions so that the play doesn’t have to end and when it does end we want to do it again.
These properties are what make play for me the essence of freedom. The things that tie you down, that constrain you – the need to be practical to follow established rules to please others is eliminated. Play is its own reward.
Berger. (2012). The Developing Person Through Childhood and Adolescence Ninth Edition . New York, NY: Worth Publishers.
Gonzalez-Mena, J. (2013). Child Family Community sixth edition . Upper saddle river, NJ: Pearson .
Linn, S. (2008 ). The case for make believe . New York, New York: The new press.
Marilyn Segal, P. f. (1998). Your Child At Play; Three to Five Years. New York, New York: USA and Canada.
Vaughan, S. B. (2009). Play-how it shapes the brain,opens the imagination, and invigorates the soul. London, England: Penguin Group ltd.