As adults, when we typically think of play, we embrace the thought of escaping from work, relishing the fantasies of just being able to have fun. Unfortunately for us, we tend to believe that play and work are mutually exclusive. To children, however, play is their "work," and they take it very seriously. As a result, play enables children to acquire some critical developmental skills that can serve them for the rest of their lives.
There are many definitions of play, but play here refers to creative, imaginative recreation created and directed by children (such as make-believe play, block play, etc.). Allowing children to self-direct their play gives them creative control and ownership of their domain, allowing them to express themselves in an uninhibited manner. In turn, their curiosity is fed, stretching their minds and promoting further learning.
Here is a top 10 list of the benefits of play for young children.
- Dramatic play develops self-control and self-regulation. While play is often associated with freedom, dramatic play is actually self-regulated. Take the example of children playing firemen: if a child begins crying, another child will point out that firemen don't cry and self-control must be exercised if the child is continue to play that role.
- Role-playing increases a child's concentration and attention span. Research shows that a child's ability to control their impulses is stronger when imaging a dramatic scene rather than a non-play situation. When asked to stand still for as long as possible, four-year-old children typically did not make it past one minute. But when asked to imagine themselves as castle guards, the children stood still for as long as four minutes.
- Play is one of the vital signs and contributors of health in children. Many health professionals see a direct link between the decline of active outdoor play and the increasingly alarming rise in childhood obesity.
- Engaging in active and creative play gives children a place to vent their stress and pent-up energy. Many experts feel that the rise in childhood anxiety and aggression can be linked to the increased focus on kindergarten curriculum on standardized testing and the corresponding decrease in indoor and outdoor creative playtime.
- Different types of play cultivate different fundamental developmental skills. "Large-motor" play, more commonly known as playground romping (sliding, climbing, swinging, etc.) develops coordination, balance, and a sense of self-awareness and of the space around oneself. Small-motor play, such as puzzle-making and stringing beads, develops fine-motor control, as well as dexterity. Rules-based play requires children to exercise self-control, as well as perform the social negotiation skills needed to adapt rules to changing scenarios.
- Role-playing promotes observation skills and increases verbal expression. Creating and filling out a fully-fashioned character requires children to drawn on their observations of the world around them. To communicate these observations, they further expand their vocabulary, connecting rules of effective communication with social interactions.
- Through play, children form hypotheses and play the processes to test them. Initiating special projects such as the production of a play or construction of a pillow fort provides invaluable venues for learning at many levels - learning that involves math, literacy, and even the basis of scientific method.
- Play teaches children the importance of pursuing their own ideas to a successful conclusion. Play allows children to internalize critical concepts and act out real life in an enjoyable, flexible manner that focuses on the process of learning, not the product.
- Play is linked to academic success. Research directly correlates play to children's ability to master such academic content as literacy and numeracy, problem-solving strategies, and group participation.
- Play fosters a child's social and emotional development. Play develops a child's executive center, which controls the higher brain functions associated with social and emotional abilities.
As a whole, research proves that creative play helps to develop, strengthen, and heighten children's creative, cognitive, emotional, physical, and social skills. It further promotes and enhances concentration, self-control, and regulation--all critical in achieving academic, social, and personal success throughout life.