The following is a paper on early childhood and play that I presented as part of my keynote at the 19th Encuentro Internacional de Educacion Inicial y Preescolar (International Meeting of Initial & Preschool Education) in Monterrey, Mexico on October 10, 2019. 

A Comprehensive Vision of Human Development:

       Cognitive and Socio-Affective Processes and Play in Early Childhood

            In writing and speaking about children’s play, I’ve found it necessary to be clear in defining what play actually is, because the word gets used in a variety of ways by educators.  Let me begin by saying what, in my opinion, play is not.  It is not organized sports like soccer, football, or basketball.  It is not adult-created games like Monopoly or Scrabble (unless the kids themselves establish their own rules).  It is not interacting with technologies such as video games, the Internet, or social media.  It is not any kind of play that has a specific instructional goal in mind.  When I use the term ‘’play’’ I have in mind more child-centered meanings involving some of the following pursuits:

  • imaginative journeys (e.g. playing pirates, princesses, or airline pilots);
  • Intrinsically valuable creations and processes (e.g. making ‘’mud pies,’’ creating ‘’forts’’ from wood and nails, putting on a spontaneous play);
  • inherently rewarding explorations of the world (e.g. climbing trees, looking for bugs, sorting and counting stones);
  • self-directed experiences and challenges (e.g. creating the ‘’highest’’ card house, building a ‘’town’’ with play tools and blocks; painting a picture with a toothbrush);
  • ever-changing rules and limits (e.g. playing a conventional sport or game but with child-derived rules, spontaneously transforming a search for four leaf clovers into a hunt for buried treasure).

With this sort of definition of play in mind, then, we can take a look at a wide range of cognitive and socio-affective skills that are developed in child-centered play.

Play promotes cognitive growth through such activities as estimating and predicting (e.g. whether an object will sink or float in a basin of water), counting and measuring (e.g. filling a pail in a sand box), comparing and contrasting (e.g. noticing the different sizes and shapes of wooden blocks as one builds), decision-making (e.g. deciding whether to join some fellow students in racing miniature cars around a track, or alternatively whether to go to the art area and work with clay), and problem-solving (e.g. trying to figure out how a new toy works).

Play facilitates social development by helping kids in internalizing social values (e.g. playing at having a tea party), learning to cooperate and share (e.g. taking turns with a classmate in sharing a toy), developing empathy (e.g. pretending to be another person and acting out their emotions), resolving social conflict (e.g. working out a solution when two kids want to use the same toy), and mastering communication skills (e.g. asking a fellow playmate for help in building a village with blocks).

Finally, play promotes emotional growth by encouraging children to try on new identities (e.g. playing at being train engineers or nurses), to meet new challenges head-on (e.g. playing with a new student), to learn how to self-regulate emotional responses (e.g. giving a big sigh instead of throwing a tantrum when a just-built wooden tower collapses unexpectedly), to develop self-confidence (e.g. taking on a leadership role in a play scenario), and to enhance self-awareness (e.g. working out questions to emotional issues like race and gender through puppet play).

For children aged zero to three, play takes on special significance particularly as it relates to the family’s influence in cultivating socio-affective skills.  The playful interactions that occur between an infant and a mother (or a father) help to create a positive emotional bond between the child and his parents, which can then serve as a basic template for all future relationships.  Regular positive playful experiences with the family communicate to the infant or toddler a fundamental message that the world is essentially a safe place where his or her basic autonomy will be respected.  The innocent games that get passed down from generation to generation such as ‘’peek-a-boo’’ and ‘’patty-cake-baker’s-man’’ promote the kind of give and take that is an integral part of functioning as a social being in the world.  The inevitable frustrations that occur during play (such as when a toy won’t perform as expected), provide opportunities for learning emotional self-regulation skills with the support of the parent.  Finally, the positive emotions that are generated with regular playful experiences as a family, serve the infant or toddler as an ‘’emotional buffer’’ that will help protect them against future stressful events.  This, in turn, will help to support the child’s mental and physical health as he or she grows into maturity.

After reviewing some of the benefits of play described in the previous paragraphs (which serves only as a partial list), we can begin to appreciate the breadth and depth of child-centered play experiences in facilitating real growth.  But to guarantee that these sorts of things happen, the parent or early childhood educator needs to make sure that they create both the external and internal requirements necessary so that kids can get the maximize benefit from their play experiences.  Here are a few tips to help educators along the way:

  1. Develop playfulness in yourself as a parent or teacher. Children are born with an instinct to play, but they need to have playful role models around them to activate this inner drive. While it’s important that parents and teachers not interfere too much in the serious business of children’s play, there are times when it’s entirely appropriate for them to join in all the fun and take on a role in a pretend game, for example, or be one of the puppets in a spontaneous puppet theater production.
  2. Create rich and diverse play spaces. There should be a variety of ways in which children can play both inside and outside of the home or classroom.  I’ve found Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences a good template to use in determining the basic areas that should be addressed.  Gardner wrote about the existence of eight separate intelligences (linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalist), which are essentially areas of potential growth in each child.  Here are some suggestions for making sure that a play space incorporates resources that allow for the development of each of these intelligences.
    1. Linguistic (‘’Word Smart’’) – materials for oral language (e.g. toy phones, walkie-walkies, microphones, platforms for giving ‘’speeches’’ and acting out plays etc.;
    2. LogicalMathematical (“Number or Logic Smart’’) – materials for investigations in mathematics (e.g. things to count, sort, weigh, measure, etc.) and science (e.g. a ‘’sink and float’’ water table, a magnifying glass, bubble blowing equipment, etc.);
    3. Spatial (‘’Picture Smart’’) – an art center or materials for painting, coloring, sculpting, magazines to cut up for collaging etc.; visual puzzles, things to look at the world through (e.g. telescope, periscope etc.);
    4. Bodily-Kinesthetic (“Body Smart’’) – an open space for physical movement (indoors and/or outside), building materials, etc.
    5. Musical (‘’Music Smart) – percussion instruments, simple musical instruments (e.g. toy guitar, toy piano etc.);
    6. Interpersonal (‘’People Smart’’) – a play house, areas for social interaction, etc.
    7. Intrapersonal (‘’Self Smart’’) – hidden places to be alone (e.g. a tent, a loft); materials for playing by oneself
    8. Naturalist (‘’Nature Smart’’) – indoor sand table, water table, gerbil cage or other animal cage, outdoor garden, green area for open outdoor play.

While there may be space and financial limitations to how a play space is set up, parents and educators can find ways in which each of these intelligences can be represented (e.g. play materials can be put in storage boxes for easy access, the same space can be used for revolving activities).

  1. Provide simple play materials. This tip is a corollary to point number 2 in suggesting that, all things being equal, it’s best to provide simple rather than expensive and complex toys and other play materials.  A simple sock doll is preferable to a Barbie doll, for example, because the simpler doll allows for more imaginative play.
  2. Give kids lots of time to play. Perhaps the most important play resource is time – children need plenty of time to engage in play activities.  Unfortunately, the trend of our times is to squeeze out play periods in order to make more time for academic learning (which for the most part is developmentally inappropriate for preschoolers and kindergartners).  Educators need to provide strong advocacy for implementing plenty of child-centered play in their schools and for supporting it in the home.
  3. Don’t try to ‘’teach’’ during play. Because of the unfortunate emphasis on academic learning in early childhood programs, there can be a tendency even during play periods for the teacher (or even the parent) to attempt to structure learning activities or to direct play experiences so that they meet specific instructional goals.  This impulse needs to be resisted, and instead, the teacher or parent should serve during play periods primarily as a facilitator, there to offer help with resources, to assist kids in resolving social conflicts, and to help with emotional self-regulation issues.
  4. Don’t judge children’s play productions. Again, because of the incursion of an academic set of expectations (more appropriate for first grade and up), there is always the temptation to evaluate children’s play products and productions with comments of praise, programs of awarding gold stars, or other ways of judging the play experience. These efforts (unless part of an overarching class management program) can serve only to deprive children’s play activities of their authenticity, and result in children playing to please the teacher or parent, which deprives play of many of the benefits described above.
  5. Use conflicts that occur during play as an opportunity to learn. In their teacher training programs, early childhood educators should learn that it is natural and expected that there will be conflicts between students as they play.  Instead of treating these conflicts as discipline problems or as violations of proper school decorum (excepting those conflicts that involve real harm to person or property), teachers should embrace these events as ‘’teachable moments’’ to help kids learn about emotional self-regulation, cooperation, sharing, empathy, and other socio-affective skills.  The same applies to parents in the home environment.
  6. Be a strong advocate for play. In today’s complex world, play is an endangered species.  At school, as noted above, there are pressures to squeeze out play in favor of academic learning.  In the home, children are playing less and engaging more with technological tools (video games, the Internet, social media etc.).  There are also limitations being placed on the creation of vibrant play spaces due to concerns about civil litigation (e.g. a school being sued because a child falls out of a tree he was climbing).  The result is that children are playing less, and the consequences of that include a rise in the number of children we see being diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and also in the increase in childhood obesity with its attendant dangers of diabetes, cardio-vascular disease, and other health problems. Early childhood educators should see themselves as vigilant advocates for play in their schools and band together to promote play at teachers’ meetings and other events where school policy is being discussed and set.

The stakes for our children couldn’t be higher in terms of their either gaining or losing out on their opportunity to play on a regular basis.  Not only are there individual health risks in not playing, but society as a whole can suffer the consequences of a decline in this life generating activity.  Some experts have suggested that play was fundamental in the development of culture itself. As historian Johann Huizinga points out:  ‘’As a social impulse [play is] older than culture itself . . . Ritual grew up in sacred play; poetry was born in play and nourished on play; music and dancing were pure play . . . We have to conclude that civilization is, in its earliest phases, played.’’ (Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture, Eastford, Connecticut: Martino Fine Books, 2014, p. 173).  Similarly, many creative geniuses in Western civilization have described their creative activity in terms of play (e.g. the discoverer of penicillin, Alexander Fleming once said ‘’’I play with microbes.  It is very pleasant to break the rules.’’).  It is imperative, therefore, that we wake up to the dilemma we are facing and see the inherent value in free play activities so that all our children have the opportunity to engage in substantial child-centered play, thereby helping to develop their full potential in life.

For more information about the importance of play in the development of the child, and the need to incorporate it into school life, see my book If Einstein Ran the Schools: Revitalizing U.S. Education

This post brought to you by Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D. and

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I’m the author of 20 books including my latest, a novel called Childless, which you can order from Amazon.

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