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7.3: Play and Children's Development

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    • Jennifer Karshna & Holly Lanoue

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    Play and Children’s Development

    Play, with the opportunities for choice, wonder, and delight (Mardell, 2019), can be thought of as an experience rather than an activity. Experience and activity are not the same. Experiences involve personal connections and are defined as “something personally encountered, undergone, or lived through” (Meriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 2005, p. 440). The various definitions of activity include action and “being active” (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 2005, p. 13). Although play is active, it is also personal and involves children bringing their own knowledge of the world to build upon it either alone or with others during play experiences (Parten, 1932; Piaget, 1962; Smilanky & Sheftaya, 1990; Smith, 2010, Sutton-Smith, 1997, Vygotsky, 1978). A well-designed environment can be used by a skillful teacher for play experiences as a priority for supporting children’s learning. Chapter 8 of this book will address the environment.

    Play, as an experience, can result in benefits for children as it creates conditions conducive to growth and development (Dewey, 1938/1997; NAEYC, 2020; Piaget, 1973). Despite the benefits, academic instruction (such as learning the names of letters and numbers) is valued over play in some early learning programs (Almon & Miller, 2011). This is creating a reduction in opportunities for children to play. Because it is important for children’s development, the American Academy of Pediatrics published a report to guide doctors with information needed to talk with families about play, including writing a prescription for it (Yogman, et al., 2018).

    Katz (2010) wrote about “standards of experience” and described how instead of emphasizing performance standards (such as identifying letters and numbers), teachers and other early learning professionals can think about types of experiences offered for children. Rather than academic activities, children can engage in play, which allows them to pursue what is of interest to them and to do so at their own developmental level. In the video below, Carlsson-Paige (2013) explains play, children’s learning, her concerns regarding academic activities versus play experiences.

    As you saw in the video, play experiences create opportunities for children to engage in all areas of development and it promotes creative thought and expression (Bodrova & Leong, 1996; Carlson, 2011; Dewey, 1913, 1916/1944, 1938/1997; Isbell & Yoshizawa, 2016; Parten, 1932; Piaget, 1962, 1973; Smilansky & Sheftaya, 1990; Smith, 2010; Sutton-Smith, 1997; Yogman et al., 2018). Additionally, play is valuable because it can result in practice that builds various skills (Sutton-Smith, 1997). As you read about in Chapter 5, the domains of development are cognitive, physical, social, and emotional. These areas overlap and intersect with one another and this can be seen during play. For the purposes of understanding how play supports each developmental domain, the domains will be described separately but keep in mind that all developmental domains are used when children are playing.

    Play is intellectual; it requires thinking. When playing, children represent their thinking symbolically and through the use of physical and mental tools (Dewey, 1916/1944; Piaget, 1962, 1973; Vygotsky, 1978). During play children not only represent their ideas, but they also construct knowledge of the physical and social world (Piaget, 1962; Vygotsky, 1978). Play requires self-regulation, which builds executive function (Bodrova & Leong, 1996; Yogman, et al., 2018). You read about executive function in Chapter 5. As described by Yogman et al. (2018), play helps children develop 21st Century skills such as creative thinking and problem solving, and these skills use executive functioning.

    Image 7.2 Concentration is licensed under CC by 1.0

    Equally important to cognition is physical and social/emotional development. As you read about in Chapter 5, physical development includes fine and gross motor skills as well as movement. When children use materials and toys in play, they use fine and gross motor skills and in some forms of play engage in movement and physical activity. Physical development begins before birth as babies move their bodies in the womb and continues throughout childhood (Carlson, 2011). Infants engage in sensorimotor activity, such as waving a rattle and watching it. This type of play is physical and interrelated to cognition and future development (Dewey, 1913; Erikson, 1963; Piaget, 1962; Vygotsky, 1978). Sensorimotor play continues in toddlers with increased mobility as children learn to walk and are continually in motion (Carlson, 2011). There is interest and motivation to move oneself and objects (Dewey, 1913) and at times it can take a lot of effort and/or is sustained for a length of time. This can be observed when watching a one-year-old move objects around the room such as pushing a chair or box, and the primary interest in this play is to move. Preschoolers gain coordination and increasing competence with physical activity (Carlson, 2011). As fine and gross motor skills are refined, it is demonstrated in the way they play with toys that connect, sensory materials such as play dough and clay, and writing/drawing materials. They also use large motor skills such as running, jumping, and climbing. As children get older, they have the motor ability to build with materials such as Legos and can play games like hopscotch.

    Social/emotional development is also important for children. Children play with adults and with each other, therefore they engage in social interaction. There is an intrinsic, emotional aspect to play. The previous description of play as involving choice, wonder, and delight (Mardell, 2019) provides a summary of the emotional aspects of play. Each word—choice, wonder, and delight—involves emotions. Children choose based on interests and motivation (Dewey, 1913). Wonder involves curiosity and is usually related to positive emotional interest. Delight is a word to describe pleasure and joy. Imagine three children playing outside where there are rocks that are large enough to stay in place but small enough for a child to move. One child turns a rock over. The children find bugs and worms that were underneath the rock and one exclaimed “Wow, look at that! Another said: “He is moving, look, he is crawling really fast!” The third said: “Where is he going?” A debate starts about whether or not the bug is scared, hungry, or looking for a new home. In this example, the children decided to play with the rock and move it, were excited about what they found under it, and wondered about what the creatures were doing. Take a minute to think about your emotions when you can make choices, in what you wonder about, and how you feel when you hear the word delight.

    Play involves all of the developmental domains. There is a developmental aspect to play. The play of very young children—infants—is quite different from the play of older children. These differences are a result of development and life experiences. Developmental progression is a basis for some theories and authors, such as Piaget (1962, 1973) and Parten (1932). Play is complex and there are many ways in which to examine children’s play, the benefits of it, and it can be helpful to use the domains as a framework for understanding play and development. Reading about the types of play bring further clarification of play and its role in children’s development and early learning.


    After reading this section and watching the Carlsson-Paige video, what are your thoughts about how children benefit from play?

    Types of Play

    As established at the beginning of this chapter, play is complex. For the purposes of studying and understanding play, it is often divided into types of play (Luckenbill et al., 2019; Smith, 2010). Similar to describing play, the categories are complex and they overlap (Smith, 2010). Nevertheless, categorizing play into differing types aids in understanding it. This section is categorized into six types: sensorimotor, physical, exploratory, constructive, dramatic, and outdoor/nature play. Risky play, which could be classified as its own type of play, is included with nature play because outdoor experiences create good opportunities for risk-taking.

    Sensorimotor play begins early in life (Luckenbill et al., 2019; Piaget, 1962, 1973; Smith, 2010). In sensorimotor play children engage with physical movement and input from the senses. The play actions can include materials, the child’s own body, other people, and sensory action and exploration. Actions may be repetitive. They also can build and expand from the repetitions (Piaget, 1962). Sensorimotor play is common in Infants and toddlers.

    Infants and toddlers often engage in exploratory play, although older children will explore new materials (Smith, 2010). Exploratory play is exploration. When engaged in exploratory play, children are learning about the materials. Think about when you get a new item, such a new stove, car, type of yarn, sewing machine, or power tool. You take time to get to know the new features and if appropriate, how it feels to use the new item. You explore the new item. Similarly, in exploratory play, that is what children do to get to know the materials. Exploratory play may be referred to as practice play (Piaget, 1962) or functional play (Smilansky and Sheftaya, 1990). In this chapter the term exploratory is used because it is descriptive of what children do when engaged in this type of play. The video link below is example of a baby engaging in exploratory play.

    When children have an understanding of materials, they can use them in a purposeful manner. If they are not familiar with the materials, they explore and learn about the materials work rather than intentionally create. Constructive play can be described as using open-ended materials to create things (Luckenbill, et al., 2019; Smith, 2010). Think about children playing with blocks. They use the blocks with purpose to build roads, ships, airplanes, castles, beds, etc. Through exploratory play they learned they can stack the blocks and this knowledge leads to purposeful use of the materials to create. Another example is with sticks. Exploration may include waving and breaking sticks. Some sticks are not as easy to wave or break. Such sticks might be used to build or stir.

    Constructive play can lead to and be used with dramatic play. Dramatic play is known by other names such as pretend and fantasy play. In the video from the Play and Children’s Learning section above, Carlsson-Paige (2013) described a dramatic play (she used the word fantasy) episode in which her son became a firefighter. In dramatic play, children take on roles and act out scenarios. Imitation, such as with the child acting as a firefighter, can be a part of dramatic play (Piaget, 1962; Erikson, 1963). Children may build a fire station with blocks and other materials, perhaps sticks as hoses, and once built it emerges into dramatic play because they become firefighters.

    When dramatic play involves others, it is socio-dramatic play (Smilansky & Sheftaya, 1990). Socio-dramatic play most often begins when children are three. Toddlers usually engage in dramatic play alone. Older children, even beyond preschool years, engage in socio-dramatic play, although it is not inappropriate for them to play alone, in any type of play. The following video shows both dramatic and socio-dramatic play.

    Children engage in dramatic play in differing ways. Parten (1932) identified six ways children participate in socio-dramatic play, which can be called engagement strategies. The six engagement strategies are on a continuum ranging from not involved to active participation. The engagement strategies are as follows: unoccupied, solitary, onlooker, parallel, associative, cooperative (Parten, 1932). Unoccupied play is not playing or doing anything in particular; solitary is playing alone; onlooker is watching others play, usually showing interest but not getting involved; parallel is playing next to another but not together; associative is playing next to, at times talking and/or looking at the other person, but not playing the same thing; and cooperative is children playing together, doing the same thing, and creating one storyline (Parten, 1932).

    Unoccupied and solitary can be classified under dramatic play, onlooker, parallel, associative, and cooperative fit into socio-dramatic play. Furthermore, Parten’s (1932) study revealed that the engagement strategies can be considered as progressive stages because the findings indicated that older preschoolers used cooperative play, but younger children did not. My observations as a preschool teacher for over 20 years, as an on-site trainer for early childhood programs, and as a college instructor have been consistent with Parten’s (1932) findings that the stages show a developmental continuum. Children will engage in “earlier” stages but until ready to not use later stages such as cooperative play. It may be helpful to add that I found socio-dramatic play to be fascinating, informative, and complex to observe as well as useful in the teaching and learning process.

    An example of constructive play used in conjunction with dramatic/socio-dramatic play may illustrate the complexity and value of play as part of the teaching and learning. It is possible that a child may be involved in a socio-dramatic play situation but primarily engaging in constructive play, such as in building a boat or an airplane for others to use in the cooperative play story line. Nevertheless, the social involvement is significant because the child is participating with others and must construct in accordance with the play topic. If the play topic is taking a trip and traveling on an airplane, it would not be appropriate to construct a boat. If the builder has built boats and has no experiences with airplanes but is interested in play with the others, an airplane must be constructed. A boat will not work for air travel. The builder must now expand thinking and self-regulate to stay on task to build an airplane. The builder may or may not have information about airplanes. Lack of information adds another layer of complexity and opportunity for learning.

    Image 7.3 Building Together is licensed under CC by 1.0

    This example illustrates that there are implicit (not stated) rules in socio-dramatic play (Bodrova & Leong, 2007; Vygotsky, 1978). It also brings to light Vygostky’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) (1978). The ZPD is a range in which can function alone and with assistance. A child can function at a higher level with assistance from others. In this case, if the builder has minimal information about airplanes and has never been on one, the peers can provide the needed information for constructing the plane that includes the inside accommodations for travelers.

    Additionally, according to Vygotsky’s theory (1978), preschool children function at their highest level when engaged in socio-dramatic play. Socio-dramatic play requires self-regulation and executive functioning (Bodrova & Leong, 2007; Vygotsky, 1978). It is also important to note that children’s interests can provide motivation for trying new things (Dewey, 1913).

    Children also engage in physical play. Physical play is active and robust in which children are engaged in gross motor movement (Smith, 2010; Pellegrini, 2011). Children of all ages engage in physical play, but it looks different in infants and usually involves such actions as kicking legs and waving arms (Pellegrini, 2011). Physical play has also been referred to as big body play (Carlson, 2011). Although adults can be uncomfortable with this type of play, it is beneficial for children’s physical development (Carlson, 2011).

    Rough and tumble play is a form of physical play that is done with others (Carlson, 2011; Smith, 2010). Rough and tumble play is different from fighting. In rough and tumble play the goal is to play together rather than to harm or work against one another (Carlson, 2011). It occurs at all ages. It may be hard to imagine infants in rough and tumble play, but the examples given by Luckenbill et al. (2019) provide a good illustration: “infants crawling over other infants” and “pulling opposite each other on a length of fabric” (p. 9).

    Physical play often occurs outdoors. Outdoor and nature play has been gaining attention in recent years and it has been shown that children’s outdoor experiences, especially with nature, have been decreasing, which may be contributing to developmental issues (Louv, 2005). In this chapter outdoor and nature play are considered one category. Nature is present outdoors, including places such as sidewalks, manufactured playgrounds, or concrete surfaces such as parking lots which seem to be devoid of natural elements. Weather, worms, insects, leaves, trees, weeds, etc. are part of nature and these are just a few examples of things that can be found in most any outdoor environment that children visit on a regular basis.

    Image 7.4 Water Play is licensed under CC by 1.0

    One way to think about outdoor/nature play is through thinking about outdoor spaces in early childhood programs as outdoor learning environments (OLE) (Cooper, 2015; Falk, 2018; Nature Explore Program, 2019). The OLE affords opportunities that are different from what is found indoors. It is not surprising that children’s play is different outdoors (Engelen et al., 2018). Nature provides loose parts (Nicholson, 1971) such as sticks, rocks, and logs that can be moved around and used in many differing ways. Children tend to be active in the OLE because there is more space for running and other large motor activities such as playing on manufactured playground equipment or using natural elements. A log or tree, if permitted, can promote physical play, including climbing. Additionally, early childhood teachers allow more physical activity outdoors (Storli & Sandseter, 2015). The OLE also affords opportunities for risky play. Risky play is children taking on risks. This often causes adults concerns over safety even though children have the capability to negotiate risks (Keeler, 2020). Children may see a risky situation and do one of the following: engage, change it so it is less risky, or choose not to engage (Lavrysen et al., 2017). A child may see a large rock and choose to try to climb it, get a block to stand on to assist with climbing, or do nothing with the rock. Engaging with risk, with or without changing it, is beneficial for children’s physical, social/emotional, and cognitive development (Bento & Costa, 2018; Keeler, 2020; Lavrysen et al., 2017; McClain & Vandermaas-Peeler, 2016).

    The six categories of play provide a framework for understanding play. All types of play are a part of DAP (NAEYC, 2020). Each play type has been described separately but is not exclusive. The play types can be combined and often overlap when children are playing.


    What type of play do you think you are most comfortable with? Least comfortable with? Why?

    This page titled 7.3: Play and Children's Development is shared under a CC BY-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Jennifer Karshna & Holly Lanoue.

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