Let’s Play!

Having fun is an important reason to play.  But there is so much more than just enjoyment happening when children play. 

Play is so important to the healthy development of children that it is included in the Rights of the Child, adopted by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights.  The Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 31, designates, “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.”

Why is it important? 

Through play, children learn cognitive skills, improve their physical abilities, expand their vocabulary and literacy skills, and develop social skills.  

As children grow, the way they play evolves with them.  Newborns “play” with movement.  As they move they develop muscle strength and gain control over their body.  They also begin to make associations between the things that surround them and the sensations they feel.  

As they develop the ability to move independently, babies begin to engage in solitary play – reaching for objects, bringing things to their mouth, and learning to manipulate things with their hands.

At around a year old, babies observe those playing nearby and can engage with objects that are accessible to them, but they are usually playing independently, next to but not with their peers. That is why most play before the age of three is referred to as “parallel play”.  But even though they are not actively interacting with others, there are important social connections being made. 

Between two and three years, young children begin reciprocal play, participating together with others in playful activity.  By age 4, most children are interested in both the activity and the other children involved.  This is when they begin participating in truly cooperative play.

The activities that children engage in as play help them grow socially, emotionally, and physically.  Pretend play allows them to explore the reactions and feelings of others in a variety of situations.  Physical play, like swings, soccer, bike riding, and tree climbing helps them perfect hand-eye coordination, balance, and build strong bodies.  Playing with other children and adults gives them the opportunity to practice the give and take of engaging with others in a shared effort.  

Social connections become more important as the young child enters the school-age years.  In the years between ages 6 and 12, friends become very important.  Most children typically expand their focus beyond their relationships with family members. They are eager for relationships with their peers and develop friendships that are important to them.  

Play during these years helps them meet the need to interact with others and explore ideas and worldviews that are different from those they experience in their family.  

While we’ve been socially isolated this spring, our kids have been interacting with friends and family through Zoom calls, FaceTime and Facebook Live events.  It hasn’t been the same as being together, but the social connections have been maintained.  

There has also been a steady stream of board game afternoons, and family game night has become a regular on our schedule.  How about you?  Have you found yourself playing more with your children this spring?

Lynne Brown is a freelance writer, former Montessori teacher, and mom to seven amazing kids, some of whom now have kids of their own. She loves writing on parenting and early childhood education. You can learn more about her at: www.lynnebrownwriting.com.