Play can be defined as behaviour that we engage in for recreation or enjoyment, and not for a serious or practical purpose.
The construct of play is observed in most mammals and avian species, and even among some amphibians and reptiles. Psychologists and paediatric experts agree that play has a significant role in the healthy development of children across different cultures.
According to Piaget’s (1962) well-known theory of development, children use different types and forms of play at different stages in their development.
Babies learn from their environments through interacting with the world around them, by means of their senses (eyes, ears, smell and touch) as well as their own body movements.
For example, practice play is observed during infancy and involves babies repeating body movements they are in the process of mastering, thereby consolidating their learning. Imagine a baby playing in his crib swatting at a mobile dangling above his head, and then using other toys within his reach to repeat and perfect the same swat movement.
Imagine a baby playing in his crib swatting at a mobile dangling above his head, and then using other toys within his reach to repeat and perfect the same swat movement.
Piaget also describes symbolic play as the child’s ability to use one thing to represent another, for example when a little girl uses an empty plastic teacup to host a beautiful morning tea for all her ladies (dolls) in waiting.
Symbolic play happens when children re-enact life events from their own perspective, and in this way they learn to understand, represent, remember and picture objects in their mind without having the object in front of them.
Locomotor is described as play that consists of any activities that move the body from place to place. For children, locomotor play helps the development of fundamental movement skills, including walking, running, hopping, galloping, skipping, jumping, side-skipping and leaping.
A popular form of locomotor play is play-fighting or wrestling. Children engage in this rough and tumble play, or play-fighting, which has less to do with actual fighting and more with touching, tickling and figuring out their own physical strength and flexibility.
Another important type of play that we often see in children aged 4 and above, is socio-dramatic play, where children enact real-life domestic, social or interpersonal situations, for example pretending to own a house, being mothers/ fathers, going to the shops or preparing a meal.
Fantasy & Imaginative Play
During fantasy and imaginative play, children are able to rearrange the world according to their desires and wishes, and conventional rules do not necessarily apply. For example, some children enjoy pretending to be animals, magical creatures or a wealthy prince. Playing in this way helps children to develop imagination and a sense of humour, and can be a wonderful tool for escapism and stress release.
We encourage parents to play with their children, to get involved in their children’s games and play-stories.
Researchers have found that both the quality and quantity of parent-child play successfully predict the quality and frequency of children’s play with their peers. In other words, parents who play with their children on a regular basis, help their kids to be better and more popular playmates to their peers.
Parents need to practice patience and understanding when playing with their kids. Refrain from directing the play-time to suit identified learning objectives, and rather give your children space to be spontaneous and creative.
Playing with other children is extremely important for social bonding and learning necessary social skills, such as the ability to decode and understand social and emotional cues from others. Children also learn how to take turns and how to inhibit impulsivity and aggression.
Psychologists who work with children will often use play therapy as a means to understand the child’s emotional world and to find out more about their experiences in the home or school environment. Therapists believe that children use play to communicate, express and make meaning of their experiences. For example, a child may play with a family of stuffed animals or finger puppets, and in this way reveal family dynamics or recurring themes from their own lives.
At school, play should form an essential part of developmental learning. Research has shown that children are most likely to reach their learning potential when they are taught and assessed in contexts that are simultaneously motivating and socially and cognitively challenging. In other words, use play as a reward and positive reinforcement, use it as a way to relax and reset during a break, and also to help children be more engaged with material in the classroom. There is also a strong link between play and the development of literacy. Children learn to make and practice new sounds during play and often try out new additions to their vocabulary.
As we grow older, we often neglect our need to engage in fun, rejuvenating play. It is important to note that play is an important source of relaxation and stimulation for adults too. Play relieves stress, boosts creativity, and helps to improve friendships and the quality of intimate relationships.
Embrace your playful, child-like side today.
Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said: “It is a happy talent to know how to play”
Source: The Role of Play in Human Development – Anthony D. Pellegrini (2009). Oxford University Press.