The Importance of Play

The Importance of Play

and the Factors Impacting Its Practice

Sharon Lowe

Gordon College



In the past two decades, radical changes have taken place in the preschools and kindergartens across America. Children who, until recently, made sense of their world through pure play, are spending more time being instructed in academics than developmentally appropriately by learning through play. In the past, play was self-chosen, challenging, and filled with creative adventures. Early childhood educators often are aware of the benefits of teaching methods based on play, but often do not understand the reasons why it works. Worldwide, children are becoming more sedentary in the age where social media and video games are the replacing healthy play. This paper will examine developmental theories on play (Piaget, Vygotsky, Erikson, Montessori) as well as articles written by child advocates David Elkind, Lilian Katz, Elena Bodrova, Edward Zigler and others.  Events leading to the reduction in children’s play, the current effects on the well-being of children, and implications for the future will also be examined.

The Importance of Play and the Factors Impacting Its Practice

Children of the 21st century are losing a precious aspect of their early childhood education – play. With the emphasis on more direct instruction, even as early as prekindergarten, play-oriented and constructivist approaches are becoming obsolete.(Nicolopoulou, 2010) Children now spend far more time being taught and tested on literacy and math skills than they do learning through play and exploration, exercising their bodies, and using their imaginations. The implications of these radical changes in early education practice reach far beyond schools. Until recently few people were talking about the long-term effects of the disappearance of children’s play.

From the hunter-gathers to Native Americans to early settlers, children played in the fields and forests without adult interference. Play was self-chosen and challenging and filled with creative endeavors. Through play, children learned how to master their world. Undirected play allowed children to learn how to work in groups, to share, to negotiate, to resolve conflicts, and to learn self-advocacy skills. (Gray, 1984)

Boston College developmental psychologist Peter Gray suggests that use of play helped early humans to overcome the innate tendencies toward aggression and dominance which would have made a cooperative society impossible. In his research he found that children of the hunter-gather period were the freest children ever to have walked the earth. By providing children with food and other subsistence needs, and by not burdening them with many chores, hunter-gatherer adults allowed their children ample time to educate themselves. “Play and humor were not just means of adding fun to their lives,” according to Gray. “They were means of maintaining the band’s existence – means of promoting actively the egalitarian attitude, intense sharing, and relative peacefulness for which hunter-gatherers are justly famous and upon which they depended for survival.”

Throughout history philosophers and theorists as well as great scholars have revered play and its importance in children’s development. Pioneering psychologist, Lev Vygotsky, wrote “I think that if there were no development in preschool years of needs that cannot be realized immediately, there would be no play.”  At the core of Vygotsky’s theory is the idea that child development is the result of the interactions between children and their social environment. These interactions include those with parents and teachers, playmates and classmates, and brothers and sisters. They also involve relationships with significant objects, such as books or toys, and culturally specific practices that children engage in in the classroom, at home, and on the playground. Children are active partners in these interactions, constructing knowledge, skills, and attitudes and not just mirroring the world around them.(Bodrova) Young people’s play is not simply frivolous: it is an intensely absorbing activity that serves as a powerful matrix for learning an development. He also believed that children learn to live within self imposed rules during their fantasy play; play allows the child to practice self regulation. Play, for Vygotsky, was vehicle for a child behaving more maturely than at other times. “In play it is as though he were a head taller than himself.” In fantasy play children can work at the top of their Zone of Proximal Development – the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers. (Vygotsky,1933) The ‘Tools of the Mind Curriculum’ developed by Elena Bodrova promotes self-regulation in children. Its foundations are based on Vygotsky’s theories of scaffolding within each child’s Zone of Proximal Development and promotes the development of mature make-believe play.

Swiss developmental psychologist and philosopher, Jean Piaget established that play is crucial to the normal development of the child. If a child were deprived of opportunities to play, the development of that child as a well-rounded human being would be seriously stunted. Because a preschool child is egocentric, he does not have the ability to see another child’s point of view. Through repeated social interaction, another individual’s needs, interests, and goals can come into focus for a child. Through the conflicts the child comes closer to understanding that others have ideas also.(Piaget,1962)

Piaget claimed that play was just for pleasure, and while it allowed children to practice things they had previously learned, it did not necessarily result in the learning of new things. In other words, play reflects what the child has already learned but does necessarily teach the child anything new. In this view, play is seen as a “process reflective of emerging symbolic development, but contributing little to it” (Johnsen & Christie, 1986, p. 51).

Erik Erikson, developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst, believed that the world of play is very important in the early stage of a child’s development. It offers the child a safe place to work through conflicts of the child’s life. A child can often be seen pushing a doll in the preschool in the same way that the child was pushed earlier. Role playing various family members, the doctor, police officer, or school teacher are most common at this age.

Play is a safe world where the consequences are not too strong or the limits too rigid. The child can be the authority — the one who can stop rather than the one who is being stopped. Some of the favorite things of child in preschool are role playing wild animals, monsters, parents, and teachers. All of these play situation put the child in charge. An environment which provides materials, equipment, space, time, and understanding adults allows the child to organize the child’s ideas, feelings, and fantasies into a plan for play. The initiating child can be an intrusive child using shouting, shock words, scuffling, and wild running to express intent. Play affords the exploration and manipulation of ideas and relationships without too much doubt, shame, guilt even though the child is yet unskilled.

Erikson powerfully advocated for a “new education of children” based on self-knowledge and a complex world view that scorned “immediate diagnoses of health or sickness, judgments of goodness or badness, or advice on ‘how to’.” Erikson’s beliefs in the complexity and resilience of children and in the importance of mutuality in helping relationships.

Marie Montessori believed children learn most effectively when information is developmentally appropriate and when play and work are united in a single activity. She stated there are genetically sensitive periods when children can acquire skills and information. In a Montessori school, each child chooses the work for which he is ready learning independently at his own pace. There are no grades, punishment, reward, textbooks, tests, or worksheets. Children typically spend 4 hours a day in self-selected work. By bringing together learning tasks which unite work and play Montessori was able to mobilize the child’s personal motivation for the purpose of social learning. “Play is the child’s work” is perhaps Maria Montessori’s best-known axiom. (Elkind, 2009)

Play and learning are intrinsically interconnected. Learning requires the active, constructive involvement of the child and requires time to practice and assimilate information It is primarily a social activity and participation is central for learning to occur. Children learn best when the activities are relevant and useful and builds on their prior knowledge . Strategies help children solve problems. Play provides the vehicle for learning. When a teacher turns learning into play,students no longer need to be coerced: they are intrinsically motivated to participate. By  planning and monitoring their learning, children learn self-regulation. As they learn, they often will need to reassess their existing conceptions and adjust as necessary. Children learn best when their developmental and individual differences are taken into consideration. Children become motivated learners by teacher’s behavior and words. “Play is by its very nature educational. And it should be pleasurable. When the fun goes out of play, most often so does the learning.” (Gray, 1984 )

Until post-war America in the early 1950’s, children developed socially, physically, and emotionally by playing with their peers in their natural environment . However, when Russia launched Sputnik in 1957 and surpassed the United States in the race into space, many Americans believed the Soviets’ more rigorous education system was more effective. Although new knowledge on child development and education was emerging, a plan to emphasize academic pursuits over play was initiated. Unfortunately, many academics knew about education but didn’t know about children.

Throughout the 1960’s, parents and educators were pushed  to teach children as much as possible as early as possible.  By the late 1970s, the era of the whole child began with a new appreciation of the value of play.  A decade later during the Reagan and Bush administrations,federal funding was cut to support only cognitive measurement systems dismissing the whole child concepts including social and emotional development. In 1995, however, a group of federal and state policymakers created a system which considered the physical, social and emotional, and cognitive aspects of a child’s development only to have the focus return to academics a few years later.  Play was considered as superfluous. (Frost, 1997)

Subsequently, educators in the last two decades have been pressured to forgo physical activity and play in order to prepare the children for standardized testing as early as kindergarten.  The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was signed into law on January 8, 2002 in an attempt to increase accountability and school achievement throughout the nation. Teachers are increasingly teaching “to the test” due to the widespread fear that their students will perform badly resulting in their termination. Critics argue that by teaching to the test, many students fail to receive a creative, personally relevant and well-rounded curriculum. All students are held to the same achievement standard (as dictated by their state) regardless of their ability level, socioeconomic status and native language. (DellaMattera, 2010)

A recent report from the Alliance for Childhood summed up the situation for kindergarten:

Too few Americans are aware of the radical changes in kindergarten practice in the last ten to twenty years. Children now spend far more time being instructed and tested in literacy and math than they do learning through play and exploration, exercising their bodies, and using their imaginations. Many kindergartens use highly prescriptive curricula linked to standardized tests. An increasing number of teachers must follow scripts from which they may not deviate. Many children struggle to live up to academic standards that are developmentally inappropriate…At the same time that we have increased academic pressure in children’s lives through inappropriate standards, we have managed to undermine their primary tool for dealing with stress – freely chosen, child-directed, intrinsically motivated play. (Miller& Almon, 2009)

Although the policies are well-intentioned, they are in direct opposition to what is known about young children’s learning and development and appropriate teaching practices. Preschoolers and kindergartners learn differently from older children. Their ways of making sense of the world rely heavily on play, exploration, and imagination. As they master their world, play helps children develop new competencies.

A 2007 study evaluated the previously mentioned  play-based program, ‘Tools of the Mind’, against a non-play-based one. After two years in the play-oriented classrooms, children scored better on self-regulation, cognitive flexibility, and working memory. The self-control children learn through interacting and playing with others has an academic benefit; it’s more strongly correlated with future academic success than either IQ or early reading and math skills.(Bodrova & Leong, 2001)

Time for free play has been markedly reduced for many children. This trend has even affected kindergarten children, who have had free play reduced in their schedules to make room for more academics. This change may have implications on children’s ability to store new information, because children’s cognitive capacity is enhanced by a clear-cut and significant change in activity. Child-driven play known to benefit children is decreased, and the downtime that allows parents and children some of the most productive time for interaction is at a premium when schedules become highly packed with adult-supervised or adult-driven activities.

Dr David Elkind (2009) states, “Learning teaches us what is known, play makes it possible for new things to be learned. There are many concepts and skills that can only be learned through play.”

In Joe Frost’s (1997) article, he lists several reasons children aren’t participating in pure play, but probably the among most prevalent and damaging are the iPods, Smart phones, video games, computers, and television. Children are using these “cyber toys” instead of playing outdoors. These gadgets have changed the way children interact with others, and have created a sedentary indoor lifestyle. He also listed parental fear of their child’s safety if they are outside on their own. This has led to children coming home from school, eating a snack, and then sitting on the couch to watch TV or chat with their friends on their cyber toys.

As play decreases, educators, school psychologists, and pediatricians are seeing a marked deterioration in children’s mental health” in an overprotective society and with too much “sedentary entertainment.” The effects can range from a lack of empathy to fear of the outside world. Psychologist Peter Gray (1984) points to the circumstantial evidence–a link between free play and psychopathology. As free play has become less common in the developed nations of the world, kids have become more troubled. Gray notes that “…anxiety,depression, feelings of helplessness, and narcissism have increased in young people in an apparently linear manner that seems to mirror the decline in play.”

Gray cites the work of Jean Twenge, a researcher who has tracked changes in public mental health over time. “According to Twenge, rates of anxiety and depression among children and adolescents were far lower during the Great Depression,World War II, the cold war, and the turbulent 1960s and early 1970s than they are today.” That doesn’t prove that lack of play has caused emotional problems. But it makes sense that play might protect kids from developing these problems. He also notes that play helps kids learn rules, practice self-control, make decisions, regulate their emotions, and cooperate with others. And in case we needed to confirm it, social play makes kids happy.

Gray says,“…[T]he most straightforward explanation for the rise of depression and anxiety in children and adolescents is that, as a society, we have increasingly forced them into settings that make them unhappy and anxious and have deprived them of the activities that make them happy.”

At some schools, children are being “coached” during recess because today’s children don’t know how to play traditional playground games and lack the social skills to organize their own games. The knowledge has been lost. (Nicolopoulou, 2010)

Several experimental studies show that children pay more attention to academics after they’ve had recess–an unstructured break in which kids are free to play without direction from adults. (Pellegrini & Holmes, 2006) Chinese and Japanese students, who are among the best achievers in the world, attend schools that provide short breaks every 50 minutes (Stevenson and Lee 1990).

A survey of parents showed that they too fear the harmful effects of lack of play in childhood. Parents said they believed it would have a negative effect in children’s communication skills, their confidence, on their ability to make friends and that it stifled a child’s imagination. Worse still many parents believed lack of play could lead to anti-social behavior, obesity, depression and mental health issues in a child’s later life. (Nicolopoulou, 2010)

Increasingly, children are given less time for free exploratory play as they are hurried to adapt into adult roles and prepare for their future at earlier ages.  Children are exposed to enrichment videos and computer programs from early infancy as well as specialized books and toys designed to ensure that they are well-rounded and adequately stimulated for excelled development. Specialized gyms and enrichment programs designed for children exist in many communities, and there is an abundance of after-school enrichment activities. These tools and programs are heavily marketed, and many parents have grown to believe that they are a requirement of good parenting and a necessity for appropriate development. As a result, much of parent-child time is spent arranging special activities or transporting children between those activities. In addition to time, considerable family financial resources are being invested to ensure that the children have what are marketed as the “very best” opportunities.

As David Elkind (2009) so profoundly states, “When we adults unite play, love, and work in our lives, we set an example that our children can follow. That just might be the best way to bring play back into the lives of our children—and build a more playful culture.”


Although play is essential to a child’s healthy development as supported by researchers, experts and theorists, there is an increasing trend to view play as unproductive.   Globally, there is evidence that the world’s children are losing the ability to go out into the backyards, ball fields, playgrounds and participate in pure play. The skills gained during play are disappearing. While children are experts at operating their cell phones, iPads, and video games, they have difficulty dealing with dead batteries or loss of electricity.

Long gone are the days of two recesses in elementary school. The students are listening to teachers drone on about the importance of the MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) tests. After school, they go to dance class, hockey practice, Little League, and then home to never-ending homework and  eventually to bed.

The effects of this change in children’s lifestyles are beginning to surface. Childhood obesity is at its highest level in history. Young children are in therapy for issues surrounding stress and depression.

 To counteract the anti-play trend, relevant information must be brought to the surface.  Teachers and parents know that play is important for young children, but do not have a clear sense of why it  is important. Play builds brains. Play, work, and learning are inextricably interrelated. Instead of the present industrial for standardizing education, highly imaginative programs are needed. Programs that value integrated, balanced education including play, work arts,exploration, creativity, imagination, academics, and integrated indoor and outdoor learning. (Frost)

Teachers, parents, policymakers, and child advocates need to rethink what is developmentally appropriate for young children.  In families, children and parents need down time. Children to go outside and play. All the organized sports and other adult-driven activities cannot give children the time to use their imagination and creativity while building a fort in the backyard. In schools, parents need to know how if there is recess, or whether their preschooler is spending a good portion of the day in quality play time. Pediatricians need to be aware of the signs of childhood issues-stress, depression, and unexplained physical ailments. It is the responsibility of all caring adults to assure that the best interests of the whole child are fully met.

“It should be noted that children at play are not playing about; their games should be seen as their most serious-minded activity.” – Michel de Montaigne

Personal Implication

In the process of doing research for this paper on the importance of play, I came to the conclusion that everything we do in society effects our children. I found it extremely troubling to see how we (society) exploits children through the media, education, marketing, politics.

Most adults don’t know about what is appropriate for children. They expose them to movies,TV shows, and video games far beyond children’s capacity to distinguish reality from fantasy. Parents think they’re doing the right thing when they sign up their kids for every activity and sport imaginable, and then expect them to get good grades. There is no time for kicking back and doing nothing, riding bikes, or just hanging out building a tree house in the backyard. The expectations put on children are unreasonable.  From the beginning of time, children have loved to chase each other, play without adults interfering, and learn about life “their way”.

Policymakers might use education experts in their push to pass legislation regarding school mandates, but  are they consulting with child development experts to find out whether what they propose is child-friendly? If they did, and took the facts seriously, they would look for appropriate ways to shape their education bills.  What they don’t understand is that in order for children to grow cognitively, they must play. Vygotsky said this years ago and it still hold true.  Again, children are the pawns in a the huge race to become a “smarter” nation where competition is the way to success.

This quote caught my eye:

“The time has come when men are beginning to realize that the stifling of the child’s developing enthusiasms in life through a back-warping, chest-cramping, nerve-breaking, mind-deadening, desk and schoolroom program of “studies” is as cruel as the Spanish Inquisition.” (Hetherington,1914)

The articles and books that I read time after time spoke to the importance of play. I knew that children learned better through play, and I was somewhat  aware of  the reduction of time children actually get to play freely, but  I was shocked that school are eliminating recess and gym in schools to give more time for academics to raise the test scores to accommodate criteria to get state and federal funding – all in the name of making the USA look good globally. We are focusing on one aspect of early education – cognitive growth – and ignoring the socioemotional growth. This defeats any strides made in preschool to promote compassion and empathy when children enter kindergarten. Kids learn how to cope with conflicts and struggles through play. It’s not just a way to let off steam, but it plays a huge part in how a child develops.

I learned that teachable moments don’t always have to be used. I look back on my own children’s early years and realize now that I probably shouldn’t have interfered in their play.  They were learning without needing my input. They were probably the last generation (they’re in their 40s) to play freely in the woods, ice skate on a barely-frozen pond, walk the railroad tracks, build forts, and grow into independent adults.

All children need this kind of freedom to grow. We adults have to take a seat on the sidelines and watch what unfolds. As Peter Gray says about the hunter-gatherers, we have to trust that our children will work it out. If they don’t play, what will replace this valuable tool in their development?

Right now, we have children that eat too much, exercise too little, and are prime candidates for high blood pressure and diabetes. We are being totally irresponsible when we don’t insist that

our children turn off the TV and go outside. Better still, we can be more effective parents by setting limits, being consistent, and being good role models.

I believe that children are instinctive. They know what they need to do, and their instincts tell them to play. If Vygotsky and Piaget along with Elkind, Gray, and a host of others are saying this in unison, why should the facts be dismissed? Let the children play!

The debt we owe to the play of imagination is incalculable. ~Carl Jung

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