Children and Play
some other day,
wants to play.
-Children's nursery rhyme
Play is the most important activity in the lives of children. Sometimes it seems more important than eating and sleeping. Sometimes play is easy and fun. Sometimes play is trying hard to do something right.
Play is the work, the occupation of childhood. If you study how a child grows, and watch children play, you will understand why play is so important.
This section is for anyone who cares about children and wants to know something about children and their play: Mothers, Fathers, Babysitters, Brothers, Neighbors, Sisters, Teachers,
Grandparents, and Students
When you read this section you will:
* find out what play really is,
* learn about the kinds of play,
* discover how play helps children grow,
* find out how people who take care of children can help children play,
* discover fun things to do with children, and
* find many more books to read if you want to know more about play.
You will see children playing at home, school, church, outside in the yard, at the store, in their room, and in the park. Start now to watch children play.
WHY IS PLAY IMPORTANT?
Play is important because it helps children grow strong and healthy.
When children run, jump, roll, throw, catch, or swing they are building muscles. They burn energy that makes them tired and hungry. Physical play improves strength, endurance, and balance. Body coordination improves when children play in physical ways. Physical play helps children sleep and eat better.
Play is important because children can learn about the meaning of things in the world.
Games help children learn what words mean, like "stop" or "go." Play with sand and buckets help children learn what "full" or "empty" means. They learn to collect and use information. They learn about time. They discover how things feel and taste. Children learn about art, science, math, music, nature, animals, and people when they play.
Play is important because it helps children learn about people.
While playing, children will learn to take turns and share. They will act out their feelings, listen and talk to playmates, and follow rules. They will try leading and following. They will start to understand themselves and others. Play helps them know what they like and what they don't like. During play they can pretend what it's like to be someone else, like a firefighter, doctor, mother, or teacher. They can pretend they are a baby or grandfather.
Play is important because it helps children learn and grow in a way that helps them feel good about themselves.
Children enjoy play. It is easier to learn when we are relaxed. We remember things we've done when the things were fun. Even when play is hard, children are excited when they discover that they can control their bodies and actions. "I did it!" means "I feel good about me." Good play offers children success.
Children at play learn to pay attention and to stick with a job. They learn to face problems and solve them. Play helps them learn what is right and wrong. They learn to be good sports, honest, and not to cheat. Children develop their imagination when they play. They learn to follow directions. All these skills will be important when children become grownups.
KINDS OF PLAY
Did you ever think about all the different ways children play? You could make a long list, but it is easier to remember if we put them into groups.
ACTIVE, PHYSICAL PLAY
Children are supposed to be active. They will swing, cut, saw, pound, roll, spin, and run. They will have contests and races. They will form teams and play "red rover" or jump rope alone. Children need lots of space for playing ball, but not much space to play jacks. Children enjoy dancing.
DRAMATIC, IMAGINATIVE PLAY
This kind of play is make-believe play where children can act out their wishes: "I wish I were a princess; let's pretend we're going to the moon; let's play dress-up; I'll be a firefighter." Children can pretend they are anything - a person, animal, car, or even a banana! Children can act out stories, write a play, or have a circus.
CREATIVE, EXPRESSIVE PLAY
Children are free to create new things - pictures, designs, ways to do things. They paint, cut, sew, draw, build, twist, and write. They sing, hum, whistle, or beat a drum.
Young children like to play alone, but around 3 years they will begin to play with others. Think of all the things two or more children can do together. Social play is interaction between children. Group games, races, talking to each other on toy telephones, and playing house are social activities.
Mental play is exploring and discovering. Words, numbers, touching, tasting, and seeing are part of mental play. Children use their minds to remember what cards have been played and plan how to win a card game. A baby learns that someone picks up what the baby drops from the high chair. It becomes a "game." Children count and read. They start collections; butterflies, stamps, insects, and coins and learn to classify them. It is fun to find a new thing to add to a collection. Children tell jokes and riddles about flowers on a nature walk, and learn colors from balloons.
HOW DOES PLAY HELP CHILDREN GROW?
Play helps children grow and change in four ways: physically, mentally, socially, and emotionally. As you learn about these, there is one important thing to remember: all children are different. You will notice this as you watch children play. You will see differences in children who are the same age. A child who cannot throw a ball at all now may throw a ball better than anyone the next time you see the children play. Remember, there is a general path of development that all children will follow, but all children will not go the same way at the same speed. Some babies crawl for a long time, while other babies stand and walk without crawling much at all. Even twins grow in different ways at different times. Understanding that there are individual differences in the speed and style of growing is an important principle of human development.
PLAY AND PHYSICAL DEVELOPMENT
When children play they learn to use muscles. Gross motor play involves the large muscles. Fine motor play involves use of smaller muscles. Large muscles like those in their arms and legs get stronger and work better as children run, hop, and climb. Small muscles in fingers and toes become more controlled.
Babies grasp with their whole hands; 4-year-olds can easily pick up little pieces. The ability to balance comes with the practice of walking along curbs, climbing trees, and monkey bars, and playing hop scotch. When parts of the body work together so that the whole body moves smoothly and accomplishes a task, it is called coordination.
Children have a lot of energy. They need lots of chances to play physically in order to burn up energy, then they sleep and eat better, so they will continue to grow. At all ages, motor coordination ability depends on play experience.
If children do not have enough chances to draw and paint, they will not be as skilled as children who do have these play experiences. An infant looking at a colorful mobile over the crib is developing eye muscles. The child's eyes follow the movement and color.
When children learn to walk, they want to pull things across the room. The toddler jumps and runs and builds a block tower. The preschool child uses a wooden hammer to pound pegs, rides a tricycle, and climbs. They take a puzzle apart and put it back together again. In doing this they are learning to use their fingers. They want to touch the ice in their glass or taste the soap.
Children of school age keep on growing. The 6- and 7-year-old uses crayons and scissors to color and cut with skill. The 8- and 9-year-old can hit a ball with a bat, ride a bicycle, jump rope, and play jacks. Older children can thread a needle, catch a fly ball, build a model plane or car.
PLAY AND MENTAL DEVELOPMENT
When children play they learn to use their minds. An important child psychologist, Jean Piaget, who studied how children develop, has helped us understand a lot about how children learn. They learn through their senses, by tasting, smelling, seeing, feeling, and hearing different things wherever they are playing. They learn size, color, texture, and weight. Counting in early childhood leads to skills in reasoning and logic in later childhood.
Games and play should be hard enough to challenge a child, yet easy enough to prevent failure and long term frustration. Children become bored with toys and games that are too easy. The challenge of making something work, figuring out problems (like where a puzzle piece goes), and building or rearranging something helps children grow.
Children do a lot of experimenting when they play. They discover for themselves that dirt tastes terrible. While playing they learn that some toys are heavier than others, that a ball bounces, and boats float. They learn the names of colors and that some things will hurt them. They learn to imitate what others do and how sharing works.
Children like to think hard about what they are doing and try out their own ideas. They can solve the problem of building blocks so they will stand high. Finding the pieces of the puzzle that belong in certain places and dressing and undressing a doll are pleasant problem-solving activities. Play helps minds and bodies work together to finish a task.
Children's creative imagination is used when they make things from materials on hand. A child can decide what to do with blocks, sand, paper, water, boxes, paints, crayons, paste, rhythm instruments, kits or supplies for playing store, or costumes for dress-up. The real fun of playing comes from doing something with things. Simply watching others do things or watching a mechanical toy does not provide the child with creative enjoyment.
PLAY AND SOCIAL DEVELOPMENT
How children relate to other people is called social development. People who have studied children's play noticed that children relate to people in different ways at different ages.
Early Play (Infant) Most of an infant's play is with parents and other family members.
Babies like this play and the good feeling it brings. You can sing to babies, move their hands and feet, nuzzle their tummy, and the babies will smile, laugh, and coo. When baby is a little older, simple games like peek-a-boo are fun. Babies especially like the good feelings that come from being talked to and held close.
Solitary Play (Toddler) The toddler enjoys playing alone. At this age there is little play with
other children of the same age, though they may walk around each other. Older toddlers, about the age of 2 1/2, will begin to relate to other children by touching and speaking to them.
Parallel Play (Preschool) At this stage, children enjoy being with each other, but they do not
interact very much. They will play side by side, watch, and listen to each other. They sometimes may fight over the same toy.
Associative Play (Preschool) Children still are doing their own thing. They often do the same thing as other children, but they do not do it together. Children sitting side by side in a sandbox will repeat what the others are doing.
Cooperative Play (Preschool) When speaking and listening skills are more developed, children can communicate. They plan, and tell each other what to do. They do things in response to what others do. They pretend to play house, be a mother and father, and try out relationships.
Later Play (School) School-age children structure their play with rules and time limits. All
those playing together are expected to play fair. They choose up sides and form teams. They take turns.
PLAY AND EMOTIONAL DEVELOPMENT
Drawing, painting, and music encourage self-expression. Play helps children feel good as they learn to control their actions and bodies. They are happy when they learn to enjoy the beauty of colors, the rhythm of a melody, or the action of games. Playing with dolls, stuffed animals, or carpenter tools also may help them express anger or hurt. They often work out feelings in play that they dare not show in everyday living. Children act out their hopes and fears in creative play. When children are encouraged to tell their own stories, paint their own picture, act out their own feelings, or build their own pretend world, they are better able to hold onto their own hopes and dreams. Without that support, dreams may fade. Ambition and self-approval may decline. Snuggling up to children, gently patting or stroking them can give children a feeling of security. When someone is not around to play with a child, a familiar blanket or a furry toy animal will comfort the child.
AGES AND STAGES OF PLAY
Play from birth to 18 months, primarily involves use of the senses. Babies see, smell, hear, taste, and touch. They learn about their world in these ways. The information infants gain from this simple play is important for their future play and learning.
As soon as babies open their eyes, parents can provide brightly colored pictures around the room, changing the position of the crib and the pictures often. Focusing on the pictures strengthens eye muscles and encourages babies to be alert. Light, washable toys hung as a mobile encourage eye exercises. When the baby is able to hold things; soft rattles and squeaky toys help the child to feel and to hear distinctive sounds. A crib gym set will help in physical growth. Although the child can play alone, part of the play period should include other people. Singing and cuddling are important ways that we can participate in play with infants.
When babies begin to sit up, their toys may need to be changed. They are now ready for plastic clacker rings, and enjoy any object that has movement and color. When babies start creeping, they are ready for cloth picture books, balls, and soft, cuddly toys. Nursery rhymes with rhythm and repetition sound pleasant to older infants.
From 18 months until 4, children are very active. The toddler gets pleasure out of larger toys such as a tricycle, wagon, or stick horse. Use of these toys helps develop large muscle coordination and provides experiences in testing skills. Sand and water play are fun ways to explore and experiment with size, shape, and weight. Toddlers will be curious about symbols, numbers, and letters. They enjoy hearing someone read their favorite story over and over. Older toddlers benefit from play time with other children. Three-year-olds become more social and want to be with people. Play with other children is essential at this age. Through contact with other children, toddlers learn manners, how to cooperate, the importance of friendship, sharing, and waiting their turn. During this age, children also begin to try out their power. They may threaten, kick and fight, or push a child away from their group. They even begin to explore their sex differences.
Children who are 4 and 5 are ready for more organized social play. They grow away from being interested only in their own ideas to being interested in the actions and feelings of others.
Preschoolers love to dress-up and pretend. They need dress-up clothes - hats, high heels, purses, play money, or anything grown-ups wear. Providing costumes, dress-up clothes, and equipment or furnishings encourages preschoolers toward creative, dramatic play. Big boxes that can become houses or stores are wonderful. These activities give them a chance to act out their feelings, emotions, and how they view the world about them. This practice of grown-up roles leads to the child's understanding of adults by giving the child a chance to play at being an adult. Preschoolers learn how it feels to be big. They pretend, imagine, create, and imitate what they think it is like to be grown up. They practice relating to their friends. Creative play combines the elements of imagination and fantasy with what is real.
The preschooler learns rapidly through play. Learning the differences in how things feel, look, and sound helps children develop intellectual skills. The child's vocabulary expands through learning about color and size in play activities. As children develop physically through running, jumping, and hopping, they learn action words.
Giving a child an opportunity to get messy also is a learning experience. Playing in mud, sand, and water or painting and coloring gives children a sense of freedom and another chance to strengthen their imagination and creativity. Preschoolers are not lying when they tell wonderful and exciting tales about things that adults know are not true. They are being creative.
YOUNG SCHOOL-AGE CHILDREN
Children enter elementary school at 5 or 6. At this time, play may be directed more toward specific goals like learning to reador add. Word games, clay, puzzles, and games designed to make learning fun are used extensively in schools.
For the first time, these children may want to read favorite stories to you. Their need to dream and pretend can be met with comic books and fairy tales. They want to try to do things, but may give up before a project is completed. Kits and models must be simple, and take only a short time to complete.
Card games are fun and provide chances to learn rules and develop more complex thinking skills. If the Old Maid isn't there, then he must have it! Checkers also help the child think ahead.
A lot of children this age enjoy play with small pets, but they need help in training and caring for them. By this time children are probably choosing their own playthings and playmates.
OLDER SCHOOL-AGE CHILDREN
During the later years in elementary school when children are 9 to 12, they can do many things. They stay interested in activities long enough to complete them. They can finish a monopoly game or complete a leather craft project. They enjoy collections and craft projects. They read adventure and mystery stories.
These children are able to spend longer periods of time alone, reading, knitting, putting a puzzle together, or just daydreaming. They often act on their ideas and put together elaborate experiments and inventions that may or may not work.
Children at this age are enthusiastic about team games and sports, especially if they win. Their feelings also are more intense, and losing or being chosen last on a team can be a sad and emotional experience. What their friends think of them is important.
During the last years before junior high school, girls will begin to show an interest in boys, usually in teasing, playful ways. However, most of their fun time will be spent in groups of the same sex. Slumber parties and movies are fun things to do together.
HOW CAN YOU HELP CHILDREN PLAY?
Before you begin to play with children there is one important thing you will need to remember: when they play, you are learning, too. Watch and listen. Observe how they use past experiences in today's play. Watch how they interact in a group. See their joys and sorrows. Learn what they think is important by observing their play. Study how they think and plan. See their skills. Figure out their personalities.
Whether you are mother, father, sister, brother, friend, or babysitter, there are many things to remember about your part in children's play.
Study and read about child development. Provide the right toys and activities at the right stage of development. Know what to expect. Know what might happen and what to do. For example, learn how to respond to a child's wrong answer, or to losing a game.
BE A GOOD EXAMPLE
Children will imitate many things to do. Enjoy play and have fun. Play fair. Be enthusiastic and kind. Show how to share and take turns.
BE SURE PLAY IS SAFE
Provide plenty of space. Check toys and creative materials for safety (and read *Good Times with Health and Safety* and *Good Times with Toys*.) Watch for angry, destructive behavior, and be prepared to stop unsafe play.
BE PREPARED TO MEET NEEDS
If children are ready for group play, see that same-age friends are available. Provide chances for indoor and outdoor play. Provide materials for active and quiet play. Move to the child's level when playing. You should be able to look eye-to-eye, which may mean sitting on the floor or lifting them.
BE A FOLLOWER
At times, it's best if you encourage children to choose the kind of play. Ask only once if they want to play something. Don't rush or insist. First, you will need to observe children at play. Second, you may play with them, but remember to follow, not lead. Do it their way. Third, you may show them a new way to play what they are already playing. If a child is playing with one doll, introduce a second doll and begin a conversation. Finally, sit back and observe what the child does with this new idea. Play only as long as the child is interested.
Provide creative materials. Encourage make-believe. Try to do things in new and different ways. "What if..." is a good starting place. Let boys play with dolls, and girls play with trucks.
When children are playing you can see what they are doing, so you don't have to ask. Thoughts and feelings are more hidden. You may have to ask about thoughts and feelings. This will help you understand the whole child.
* Affection from you = security for the child
* Respect from you = self-respect for the child
* Approval from you = strong self-concept for the child
LEARN BY DOING
Here are some activity suggestions so that you will learn more about play and children. Be creative in choosing your activities.
1. Observe children at play every chance you get. Don't participate, but watch little things, like their eyes. Listen to words, tone, and speed of their talk. Write down what you observe. Record the time and describe the place.
2. Interview parents of a child you know. Call the parents to set a time for the interview. Prepare your questions about the child's play habits.
3. Participate in play activities with one child.
* Take the child for a ride in a wagon.
* Demonstrate a musical instrument.
* Go to a playground.
* Play a pretend game - have a tea party, play store, make a train, go on a trip, or play school.
* Make something fun to eat, like cookies.
* Pound nails in a board. Older children can make string designs around the nails.
* Build with blocks.
* Take a listening walk.
* Teach a finger play to a preschooler.
* Read a story.
* Play jacks or jump rope.
4. Participate in play activities with a group of children.
* Lead a group in a game - farmer in the dell, red rover.
* Have a spelling contest.
* Make up a story, then act it out with puppets.
* Plan and carry out a field day with races and contests or a children's backyard Olympics.
* Organize a pet show or a neighborhood circus.
5. Create a file of play activities for different aged children. Review it before you baby-sit or interact.
6. Make a display that shows:
* materials that are useful for pretend and dress-up play,
* books that a certain age child would enjoy,
* how three different aged children hold a crayon and examples of their creativity, and
* ten objects (not toys) found around the house that a child could play with safely.
7. Prepare a poster showing:
* how to make play safe,
* how to make and store playdough,
* three play things for an infant (explain why they would be good choices),
* why children need to play (use pictures and drawings), and
* how children's social play changes as they grow (use pictures).
8. Create a play activity or material for a child.
* make a puzzle;
* create a musical instrument, like a coffee can drum, or a reed whistle;
* make some play dough; and
* make a puppet.
9. Describe in writing how a child stacks blocks.
10. Fill in the chart in this section to show how growth depends on play.
11. Prepare a craft box for older children.
This box of collage materials is welcome when children are bored. Put a pair of blunt scissors into a large box. Add a bottle of glue and a package of construction paper to use as the background for the collages. Take a tour around the house and collect things from each room. Toss in a few cotton balls, cotton swabs, and empty toilet paper rolls from the bathroom. Add toothpicks, empty paper towel rolls, small empty packages (raisins, pasta, spices), paper napkins, dried beans and pasta, and empty can labels from the kitchen. Look in closets and drawers in the bedrooms, and gather discarded costume jewelry and pieces of shirt cardboard. Look in the living room for old magazines, catalogs, fabric scraps, beads, ribbon, and yarn. You may find old used envelopes, labels, last year's Christmas cards, old postcards, index cards, and scrap paper in the den. You should have enough supplies to last a few rainy days. Keep the box well stocked - when you start to throw something away, throw it instead into the craft box.
12. Provide age-appropriate play materials. (See chart at the end of this section.)
Reprinted with permission from the National Network for Child Care - NNCC. Lagoni, L. S., Martin, D. H., Maslin-Cole, C., Cook, A., MacIsaac, K., Parrill, G., Bigner, J., Coker, E., & Sheie, S. (1989). Good times at play. In *Good times with child care* (pp. 174-192). Fort Collins, CO: Colorado State University Cooperative Extension