During the early stages of our country, child’s play was considered a waste of time. Little thought was given to the importance that play contributed to the developing child. For the last few decades educators and researchers have been fascinated with how children play. Parten’s Play Theory of 1932, Piaget of 1962 and Piaget and Inhelder of 1969 share different opinions, yet hold to common truths. Those who study the developmentally appropriate activities of children realize that play should begin early in life. And parents must provide opportunities for children to play and to learn from observations and actions as well as from being told.
Paula Brownyard, M.Ed., and Head of the School of Education, Lambuth University says, “Play teaches children to make friends. Without this interaction with others, they fail to develop social skills. And without appropriate social skills, children may become angry and act out. When this happens, other children avoid them.”
When working with children with special needs, Brownyard believes that play is essential to building skills. “Because of a disability, the child often displays low self-esteem and a poor self-concept. For these children, play doesn’t come easy. They must be taught. If parents over-protect, children may also lack the needed peer pressure that being part of a group provides.”
Language develops and vocabulary building increases when children play. Watch two or more children playing “dress-up.” What are they saying? How will they choose what to wear? Which one is the leader? Which is the follower?
Brownyard suggests that parents incorporate play in their child’s natural environment. “Play should not be rigid, but find ways to incorporate it in the child’s world. Play becomes a reflection of society—what we do, how we live, how we relate to others.” Watching a small child at play, they usually recreate some aspect of their life. Often little girls want to be the “mother” and boys the “father. Other times, a hero figure. Or, a community helper.” By observing these times, parents may see signs of how the child feels about himself/herself. Parents may also see a replay of how they discipline, how they react to stressful situations, or how their family spends time together.
Deborah Stephenson, Director of West Jackson Development Center, Jackson, Tennessee says, “Socialization with other children develops when children play. Children are not born with the concept of sharing. Young boys and girls want to please adults and they realize that pleasing happens when they work together. Parents can teach good manners, language development and respect through unstructured play. Ask yourself: How can you allow your child to develop her own activities? What items exist in your home that allows creativity to develop in a natural way?”
Play as it Relates to Growth and Development
Through play, parents have unlimited activities to help their child through cognitive, emotional, physical and social development. Use the following and keep a list of “What works for you” to share with neighbors and friends who have small children.
Cognitive, also called intellectual and mental development, occurs when there is an increase in the child’s basic store of knowledge (Lunzer, 1959); it occurs as result of experiences with objects and people (Piaget, 1952b). Parents can promote cognitive growth by using some of the following activities.
• Sort clothing by shape, size, color and need. Who in the family wears this item of clothing?
• Organize space for “pretend activities.” In playing doctor, where will the office be located? What will substitute for a stethoscope?
• Use problem-solving activities, such as how much water should be added to sand to make a mold?
• Allow children to assign character roles in play. For example, in playing store, who will be the storekeeper, the customer, the produce person?
• Read to your child each day. Parents who begin reading and looking at picture books when their children as infants, see a difference in language development and other cognitive skills. Plus, the child bonds with the parents who holds them and enjoys books together. Look at the following list of picture and story books for young children:
Great Books for Babies
The Three Little Chicks, by Nicola Smee (Scholastic)
Baby Animals, by Gyo Fujikawa (Grosset & Dunlop)
Cyndy Szekeres’ Counting Book 1 to 10, (Golden)
Garden Animals, by Sara Lynn (Macmillan)
“A” You’re Adorable, illustrated by Martha Alexander (Candlewick Press)
Doggies, by Sandra Boynton (Simon & Schuster)
26 Letters and 99 Cents, by Tana Hoban (Greenwillow)
Pat the Bunny, by Dorothy Kunhardt
Are You My Mother? By P.D. Eastman (Random House)
The Little Engine That Could, by Watty Piper (Grosset & Dunlop)
Where’s Spot? by Eric Hill (Putman)
A Super Chubby Mother Goose Rhymes (Simon & Schuster)
Goodnight, Moon, by Margaret Wise Brown (HarperCollins)
Emotional and Social
Emotional and social benefits come when children in play situations are force to consider the viewpoints of their playmates. Although most parents are not trained as play therapists, they can be aware of how children explore different emotions (anger, sadness, and so on) and various social roles in play. Parents can help in the following ways:
• If a stressful situation has occurred, talk about and help the child re-enact through play. For example, a tornado has touched down in your area. Replay, getting in a safe place when a siren is sounded. Use caution about over-reacting, but allow the child to talk about her fears and act out activities related to the event.
• Use “what-if” situations for teaching. Ask your child, “How would you feel is a bully took your lunch? What could you do? What would you say to a friend whose pet was lost?
• Provide one less toy than children. Allow the children to decide who gets the toys and who has to wait their turn. Observe children who need more practice in sharing.
• Provide ways to act out feelings through art, music, or dance. Provide paper and crayons and ask the child to draw how they feel, such as moving to a new community? Or, when they have a birthday?
• Play board games together as a family. Teach your child that in many games there are loses and winners. Also, look for games where the object is not “winning or losing” but simply the fun of playing.
Physical development includes both fine motor (dexterity of the hand and fingers) and gross motor (running, jumping, hopping, and moving in response to rhythm). If parents understand that through play, children learn best—then they realize the importance of moving away from passive behavior, such as watch television or viewing videos and computer games. Fine motor activities that promote development of small muscles include:
• Using play dough, shape, mold and create objects. Supply cookie cutters, a rolling pin and wax paper from the kitchen. Find a simple recipe for inexpensive, safe dough and allow your child to help.
• String beads or large pieces of pasta on a string for a necklace or rope.
• Practice fine motor control by using puzzles. Small fingers pick up and place pieces in the correct location. Also, good for cognitive development.
• Hammer nails into blocks of wood. Use large-head roofing nails for best results. Plan for adult supervision when using tools.
• Paint at an easel. Use large brushes and big pieces of paper.
• Teach your child to play a musical instrument. There’s no better practice for fine motor control.
Gross motor activities allow the child to develop the large muscles of the body, become physically fit, while getting rid of excess energy.
• Provide individual jump ropes. Check out a book of rhymes from your library or recall those you used as a youngster.
• Make a balance beam by placing an eight-foot 2’ by 4’ on top of two bricks. Use this safe alternative instead of making a higher structure.
• Kick a soccer ball (feet only) outdoors or inside a gym.
• Organize relay races. Mark off the distance, depending on the age and physical condition of the child. Participate as a family.
• Give your child swimming lesson or better yet, teach them yourself.
• Provide a safe place for climbing, whether a tree in your backyard or a play tower.
Play is to a child, as work is to an adult. As parents, we must respect our children’s play and trust them to learn from this aspect of growth and development.
Carolyn Ross Tomlin, M.Ed., contributes to numerous education publications. She has been the director of a preschool program, taught kindergarten and Early Childhood Development at Union University, Jackson, TN.
Lunzer, E. (1959) “Intellectual Development in the Play of Young Children.” Educational Review 11: 205-217.
Piaget, Jean. (1952). The Origins of Intelligence in Children, NY: International Universities Press.
Paula Brownyard, M.Ed., Head of the School of Education, Lambuth University, Jackson, TN.
Deborah Stephenson, Director of West Jackson Child Development Center, Jackson, TN.