The Importance of Play

The importance of play can only be considered in relation to how we define this term ‘play’ and the relationship we have with young children who play. For anyone who needs to consider play as an academic subject in its own right any professional library will contain or can obtain a wide collection of material -hypotheses, theses, definitions, observations, analysis, research, diagnostic programmes, therapeutic programmes.

Those of us who have day-to-day responsibility for young children freely – if shamefacedly – admit we can do no more than dip into such material from time to time and equally we tend to dip into only the aspects of these works which interest us. We may find it helpful or confusing, we may agree or be doubtful about the views and conclusions put forward, we may find experts disagree and that research results are contradictory. Whatever we read we have to get on with the day-to-day care of young children within the limitations of our own circumstances and our role and status with them. For a mother in particular it is necessary to put play in perspective. The needs of young children are many and time consuming. If there is a mixed age and stage range of children in the household their needs may be different and conflicting.

The baby needs food, suitable and adequate clothing, fresh air, exercise, protection from danger, rest and sleep, love and security, stimulation and conversation as well as the opportunity to play. Older children have all these needs too but they may have to be met in a different way. Which need, and whose need, is most important if we have to make a choice? No child will die because he lacks opportunity to play as he certainly would if food was not forthcoming. If however, we give a child too little food, the wrong type of food or an ill-balanced diet he will not develop properly. He needs the right type of food in the right quantity at the right time. If we give a child no opportunity to play or do not provide suitable material and opportunity at the right time he will not develop his full potential.

Mothers often misuse and abuse the word play: ‘Run away and play, I’m busy’; ‘If you can’t play nicely/quietly/without quarrelling I shall put it away/send your friend home/not take you to the park this afternoon. Stop playing about with that its’ not yours/it’s food/it’s precious.’ This is largely a question of using the wrong word (or being downright dishonest). All the above phrases could more often than not be translated as ‘I’m feeling irritable and what are you doing is annoying me.’ What mothers are good at, however, is recognizing that the child who plays well is the happy child and nearly always vice versa. This is true for children in non-family groups too. Whenever students have been asked to jot down a list of the happy children in their group and later, when they have forgotten what they wrote, have produced another list of children who play well the two lists always virtually coincide.

During one training course the students did a mammoth observation exercise to try to find out exactly what was going on in their nursery groups – what the children played with and at, how long they stayed at any activity and how well they played. We learned a great deal from this but almost as an afterthought they were asked to note the initials (no names were used) of any child who appeared to be very happy, unhappy and those who appeared to play alone. The number of children in each category was almost the same when all the totals from the nursery groups concerned were added together. The resulting charts showed most strikingly that the happy children were interested in nearly all activities, that they stayed there for a long time and they played well (I.e. constructively, imaginatively and there was progression in their play as well as evident enjoyment and satisfaction). The unhappy children showed a very different picture. They played less often, with fewer activities, stayed a shorter time and did not usually play well. The children who played alone showed a pattern very similar to that of the unhappy children. It was not the purpose of the exercise to draw any conclusions or indeed to do any more than try to obtain an overall picture of what went on in these particular groups, but it was interesting to see some justification for all the hard work and effort put into providing satisfactory play experience for the three- to five-year-old children.

From the child’s point of view the best definition of play is, ‘the way a child learns what no one else can teach him’. The new-born child has a great deal to learn about himself, about other people, about the world around him. Barring misfortune he has his senses, brain and curiosity. He imitates, repeats, explores, experiments and as his memory capacity develops he is able to make judgements and categorize what he knows. The more he learns the more he is able to and wants to learn unless at some point the learning process becomes unrewarding. The good ‘teacher’ at any stage is the adult who perpetuates and encourages the learning situation by sharing interest and enjoyment, providing material which leads on to the next stage, ensuring that suitable challenges are met rather than allowing the distress of constant failure, and providing stimulation by presenting new situations and information in an open-ended manner which involves children rather than limits them to an adult-determined framework.

In the early years the small child has to rely on his senses to gather information and for most of the pre-school period needs concrete experience. Because he cannot learn in the ‘real’ world by doing ‘ real’ things which would be too large, too dangerous, too difficult, too complicated he has to play in a protected situation where the world is presented in a manageable form – toy cars, toy dolls, building material and raw materials in safe, controlled quantities, pretend situations and relationships. Long before he needs toys however he ‘plays’ with as much of the world as he can reach – sucking and chewing anything he can get to his mouth, splashing the bath water, spreading food on his tray with his hand, grabbing for any object put near him. As he becomes mobile he can reach more, touch more and do more so that he learns even faster. As speech develops he asks questions and so can acquire even more information. At these early stages vocabulary largely depends on words being fitted to direct experience. There is not much point in talking to a child if we do not give him an opportunity to relate the words to something concrete, something he can touch, see, hear, smell, taste or experience right at this minute. Equally, while the child who is playing is storing up knowledge and impressions to which words will be fitted later as his ability to speak increases, there comes a point where someone has to give him the words which will enable him to ‘think’ instead of ‘do’. Most small children learn a great deal from each other once they have reached the stage of being able to play with another child but in the early years it is usually the adult who provides the necessary language experience. Even in later years it will be adults who provide most of the new vocabulary until reading is accomplished.