A playground on a midsummer day is a whirlwind of activity. Children on the jungle gym hanging, climbing, swinging, running, tagging, sliding. Little ones in the sandbox digging, pouring, sifting, building. Kiddos on the pavement, hopping, skipping, cartwheeling, make-believing. They are having fun, yes, but they are also working hard at the work kids do - learning.
Play is essential in every child’s life, so much so that the United Nations recognizes it as a human right. Pediatricians identify play as a necessity for developing creativity, imagination, dexterity and physical, emotional and cognitive strength. (1) Through play children learn and develop social skills, too: how to work in groups, share, negotiate, resolve conflict, advocate for themselves and regulate emotions. It helps children develop traits needed for successful adult life, confidence and resilience among them.
Photo Credit: Saving Grace School
In 1929, Mildred Parten Newhall, a sociologist and researcher at the University of Minnesota Institute of Child Development, developed a classification of six types of play. While at a busy playground, if you observe carefully, you might see each type operating.
The first can be found in the infants sitting on their caregivers’ laps reaching for the blue sky or wiggling in their strollers, feet kicking out. Newhall considered these random movements a form of play that she called unoccupied play. Slightly more advanced, an infant sitting on the grass with a few toys or a toddler digging a hole on his own in the sandbox are examples of solitary play. A more developed form of play might be the toddler standing on the sidelines watching a game of jump rope. This child is engaged in what is called onlooker play. (3)
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Parallel play is the next stage and occurs as young children play side by side without interacting, marking the beginning of a desire to play with other children. When a young child begins to ask another why she is going down the slide backwards or talks about his swing set at home,associative play is at work. Associative play can usually be found in children around the age of 3 or 4. It is goal-oriented, does not yet involve rules and sets the stage for learning how to get along with others. Finally, social play involves following rules, cooperative play, role playing and the beginning of sharing toys and ideas. A playground example might be the children playing tag. Through this advanced form of play, children learn and practice cooperating, being flexible, taking turns and solving problems. (3)
In the U.S., concerns have arisen over the reduction of children’s playtime. Contributing factors include changes in the family structure and a hurried lifestyle; an increased focus on structured extracurricular activities at the expense of free play; in schools, a prioritization of academics and enrichment activities at the expense of recess; in some neighborhoods, a lack of safe play space and everywhere, an excessive amount of time watching screens. (2)
Different circumstances in many developing countries may also put play at a premium. This includes child labor and exploitation, armed conflict and limited resources.
Photo Credit: Saving Grace School
Because of concern over reduced playtime, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has issued recommendations for parents.
Between the years of one and three, the AAP advises providing simple, inexpensive items for play. (As most parents come to realize, the box a gift comes in is often more exciting to a young child than the gift itself.) It is also recommended that these toddlers have opportunities to play with peers, engage in make-believe play and explore different types of movement such as jumping, swinging and running. The AAP encourages parents to sing songs and read books to their little ones. Finally, when choosing daycare or preschool, it is important to look for a setting that includes unstructured playtime. (2)
When a child is between the age of four and six, the AAP recommends scheduling time to play with friends, providing opportunities for singing and dancing, and seeking opportunities for slightly more advanced movement such as climbing and somersaulting. When reading to a child this age, the AAP encourages parents to ask questions about the story or role play with the child. Importantly, though many children begin using screens during this time, the AAP recommends firm limits. (2)
In days as far back as the fourth century BC, our earliest educators even recognized the value of play. Plato once said, “Do not keep children to their studies by compulsion but by play.” The importance of play for children is nothing new, but instead a concept we adults need to be reminded of as we navigate life in a busy modern world.