Children and Play: Role of Play in Early Childhood

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No, it isn’t a Child’s Play!

Our children from their earliest years must take part in all the more lawful forms of play, for if they are not surrounded with such an atmosphere they can never grow up to be well conducted and virtuous citizens.”- Plato

These are the words of one of the greatest thinkers & philosophers the world has known. Plato believed in the importance of play and that kids play influences children profoundly and that it shapes them into responsible and well-adjusted adults. There are numerous other benefits of play. But some parents, unfortunately, tend to characterize play and learning as opposites of each other! A play is considered by them as unimportant, trivial and lacking in any serious purpose. 

Padhoge Likhoge To Banoge Nawab, Kheloge Kudoge To Banoge Kharab

पढोगे  लिखोगे  तो  बनोगे  नवाब | खेलोगे  कूदोगे  तो  बनोगे  ख़राब” |

Skepticism about the value of play in the early years is further compounded by the widespread myths being promoted by hundreds of “smart baby” products. These baby products lead parents to believe that earlier the children begin to master the basic elements of reading and writing, such as phonics and letter and number recognition, the more likely they are to succeed in school. Nothing could be further from the truth!

In this blog, we highlight the following:

  • Types of play
  • Role of play in early childhood
  • Consequences of play deprivation
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Play in early childhood: What does “Play” mean to a child?

Play for a child is a natural, instinctive, entertaining and rewarding activity. It is often self-initiated. While children do not engage in play for its learning outcomes, yet numerous studies have shown that play contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children. Play and child development are two subjects are deeply wedded to each other in early childhood. Children learn through play, even if that is not their intention.

Types of Play and their role in Child Development

Broadly, children’s play can be clubbed into 12 categories [1]:

1. Large-Motor Play

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In this form of play,a child uses its big muscles while playing like run, slide, swing, jump, climb or engage in every type of movement possible. Large-Motor play develops coordination, balance, and a sense of one’s body in the space around it.

2. Fine-Motor Play

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Children play with small toys and indulge in activities like playing with puzzles, and sorting objects into types. This type of play develops dexterity.

3. Mastery Play

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Children tend to repeat an action in play and continue until they master it, such as making a paper boat etc. This kind of play has an important role to play in the development of executive functioning skills.

4. Rules-based Play

Children gradually learn to play with others, control their behaviour and conform to a structure of preset rules. Children enjoy the challenge of making up their own rules and the negotiation involved in adapting the rules for each play situation.

5. Constructive Play

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Children learn the use of different materials, put things together based on a plan, develop and use strategies for reaching their goal. For example, using blocks or Lego pieces, children enjoy building houses, trains, and other structures. This form of play requires skill and imagination.

6. Make-believe (Pretend) Play

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This broad category incorporates many other play types and is rich with language, problem-solving, and imagination. Children take on a role, pretend to be someone else and use real or pretend objects to play out a role.

7. Symbolic play

 Children take an object at hand and convert it into the toy or prop they need through a fluid process of fantasy or imagination.

8. Language Play

Children develop mastery by playing with words, rhymes, verses, and songs they make up or change. They tell stories and dramatize them. They are fascinated by foreign languages, especially when they are presented playfully in story, verse, or song.

9. Arts & Play

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Children integrate all forms of art into their play, using whatever materials are at hand to draw, model, create music, perform puppet shows and so on. They explore art forms in an undifferentiated way and use them to express their feelings and ideas.

10. Sensory Play

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Most children enjoy playing with dirt, sand, mud, water, and other materials with different textures, sounds, and smells. Such play develops their senses.

Ira Resources To Set up Early Learning at Home

11. Rough-and-tumble Play

This fundamental form of play in children is physically vigorous behaviours, such as wrestling, falling, chasing and play fighting. This type of play allows a child to understand the limits of their own strength and discover what other children will and won’t allow them to do. Parents should look at ways to making this type of play safe and socially acceptable, rather than dissuading it completely.

12. Risk-taking Play

Children extend their abilities through risky play and learn to master challenging environments. They generally know how far they can go without hurting themselves. Unfortunately, as parents, our increased focus on making our homes as risk-free as possible gives children little chance to assess risks and set their own boundaries. As parents ourselves we understand the importance of baby-proofing your home and surroundings. Our advice to parents would be allow for some risk-taking play as it has an important role to play in child development.

Play in early childhood: What role does Play have in Child Development?

Daniel Pink, author of “A Whole New Mind”, writes, “Lawyers, Accountants, Radiologists, Software engineers. That’s what our parents encouraged us to become when we grew up. But Mom and Dad were wrong. The future belongs to a very different kind of person with a very different kind of mind. People should be able to do something that can’t be outsourced, something that’s hard to automate and that delivers on the growing demand for non-material things like stories and design. Typically, these are things associated with the right side of the brain, with artistic and empathetic and playful sorts of abilities.”[3]

How can we expect our children to thrive in the “imagination economy” of the future if we deny them opportunities for play and creativity?

Watch a fascinating TED Talk by this author on the importance of play in children development:

However, the play does not mean “anything goes”. Parents should not allow the play to deteriorate into chaos. Nor the parents should structure the play so tightly that children are denied the opportunity to learn through their own initiative and exploration. Essentially, what is needed, is a balance of child-initiated play in the presence of engaged and observant parents.

As, our preschool education has increasingly focused on teaching literacy and other academic skills which almost completely lacks the play component, and play schools too are rapidly following suit, it becomes essential for parents to provide ample opportunities to their children to play at home.

Consequences of Play deprivation on Children
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Play deprivation in early childhood leads to depression

Note: Till now no direct studies of the consequences of preventing children from playing have been conducted and the evidence of depriving a child of play is largely circumstantial.

The conclusions about the consequences of play deprivation, gleaned from the many researches are:[2]

  • Moderate to severe play deprivation among individuals, particularly during the early years of life was directly related to emotional dysregulations like increased depression, diminished impulse control and self-regulation, increased addictive tendency, and fragility and shallowness of enduring interpersonal relationships.
  • Also, as a corollary,  the prevalence of these dysfunctions was significantly lower in individuals who demonstrated sustained healthy play patterns throughout life.
  • When stressed, the play deficient individuals generally become mood-driven and lack the play-derived practical alternatives to relieve their emotionally charged behaviour.
  • Those with sufficient play histories tended to manage their stressful circumstances with a much greater repertoire of adaptive choices, and mastered them, rather than succumbing to isolating self-defeating, violent or anti-social dysfunctional solutions.
A Note to Parents & Conclusion

Parents should remember that play for children means those activities that are freely chosen and directed by children and arise from an intrinsic motivation. This is the kind of play that is critical for children’s overall development and is most endangered by current early childhood education methodologies. Free play emerges from the child’s own drive to make sense of the world and is not imposed, directed, or controlled by parent’s motivations. Sometimes, however, parents need to intervene to help children get started on a play or to redirect them from a destructive play. A wise parent should step back as soon as they sense that the children can carry the play on their own.

In our subsequent blogs on baby games & play for children, we will share the age-appropriate baby games, which parents can play along with kids as a form of guided play or encourage their kid to play as self-initiated play.

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