Play is such an important part of childhood that it appears in The Rights of The Child; Article 31.1 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child sets out children’s right to play, it reads; “States Parties recognize the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts” (UNCRC, 1989) but what exactly is ‘play’?
Play is a natural instinct for children that we should be careful not to suppress as it is vital to healthy childhood development. Some markers of play include choice, wonder, and delight. Choice is simply when children choose what to do, set their own goals, share ideas and negotiate challenges, choosing what, how, where and when to play. Wonder is exploring, creating, pretending, imagining, and learning from trial and error, and delight is exactly as it sounds; kids smiling, laughing, being silly, and feeling at ease. These markers of play are often missed when we try to use play as a learning method.
There is plenty of evidence from neuroscience suggesting that play physically builds, shapes and develops the brain. (Burghardt, 2005). Play is considered crucial to the processes of learning and development (Gleave & Cole-Hamilton, 2012) and effective learning in the early years is often said to be ‘learning through play’, or ‘playful learning’, which is central to quality early childhood pedagogy and education. (UNICEF, 2018)
The notion that playing takes a central role in developing cognitive skills is built upon the work of both Piaget and Vygotsky, who both emphasized the key role of play in children’s development (Zigler and Bishop-Josef 2009; Vygotsky 1976)
Through play children build their ability to think creatively as well as more academic skills like counting, classifying and exploring patterns. Imaginative play involves creativity, structuring stories, and using vocabulary and construction play can build mathematical skills, spatial awareness and executive function skills.
Playing with others means that children learn to interact appropriately with others, developing their awareness of social cues, and ability to listen, negotiate, share ideas, express feelings and compromise.
Play is important for children’s emotional development too, imaginative play with dolls or small figures are safe ways for children to experiment with different kinds of social scenarios, filing their thoughts and feelings. In playing with others children learn to regulate emotions as they experience excitement, frustration and a whole array of emotions.
For children, play is often very physical as younger children in particular experience the world and learn primarily through their senses. Cardiovascular fitness is enhanced through play but so are coordination, strength, muscle control and balance.
Play is good for children’s mental health. It helps them relax, it helps them process and files their thoughts and feelings and it often increases the production of serotonin, the feel-good, happy hormone. Making it crucial for a happy, healthy childhood.