Children the world over, from those living with the most sophisticated families in big cities to those living in remote villages in developing countries, spend much time 'just playing.' Of course, only grown-ups would put the word 'just' in the previous sentence, implying that somehow play is an indulgence only the very young are entitled to and that nothing much is happening when children play.
Nothing could be further from reality, however, for a great deal happens when children are 'just playing.' They are developing skills and habits and attitudes that will stay with them throughout their lives. As they play they learn to cope with frustration, to continue to try to improve, to share with others, to give vocal expression to their thoughts and fantasies. They literally 'play for keeps.'
Like crying or walking or making sounds, children don't have to be taught how to play. That doesn't mean their parents and teachers aren't important in helping children advance developmentally through their play, for interaction with someone else is critical in the process. But, entirely on their own, and often with only the crudest of toys, little children play. I have watched little boys in Guatemala pushing the bottom of a match box along a garden wall while making car sounds. And with delight, I have seen children in India hold their arms like wings, make motor sounds, and run about, pretending to be airplanes. And such behaviors are not unique to the modern age: remains of dolls have been found alongside mummies of children that are thousands of years old.
Although play is important for people of all ages (witness the current fitness craze for adults, grown-ups who are 'just playing'), it is especially meaningful and important for young children. Actually play is their work, and they give a tremendous amount of energy and effort to it. If you doubt this, just watch for a few minutes as a 1-year-old struggles to get a ring on a color cone, or stand in the background as a 3-year-old tries to fit a puzzle piece into the proper spot. Or, if you roll a ball back and forth to a 2-year-old, just expect to be the first one to want to quit the game; your partner often wants to go on and on.
There are at least three ways in which play is important for young children: skill development, social development, and imagination and creativity. Learning occurs in all areas of development as young children play—and the learning, too, is for keeps.
We can observe skill development as we watch young children play with their toys. When, as very young infants, they reach for and do something with a rattle, they learn to coordinate movements of their hands with what their eyes see. The great pediatrician, Dr. Arnold Gesell, once wrote that 'The mind of man is hand-made.' This statement recognizes the tremendous importance to a young child of having exciting objects to hold and listen to and feel and manipulate. And, as young children struggle to create a desired effect with a toy, they discover that it isn't always easy. They realize that there is perhaps a problem to be solved and that they have to practice to acquire and improve the skills necessary to achieve their goal.
Play with other children is critical for the development of social skills. At first adults are their most important playmates, but soon they become eager to interact with children of similar ages. And it is through such play that they learn how to get along with others: that hitting may get them a desired toy, but lose an equally desired friend; that the other children have wants, just as they do; that sharing and kindnesses bring more rewards than snatching and pushing.
Play is the crucible in which imagination and creativity can be cultivated and expressed. The child who pretends to be a cowboy, a mother, a fairy, a firefighter is demonstrating some knowledge of these roles and is working through his or her own ideas about all that they entail. And the child who 'spanks' a doll while saying, 'I don't want you to do that again,' is releasing some of his or her own aggressive impulses via this make-believe route instead of trying to mount a direct attack on another person. Play provides just such an outlet for young children.
In other articles, I expand on each of these functions of play—skill development, social development, and creativity. Hopefully, they will help you suppress any tendency you might have to be critical of your child for wanting to play all the time. Children do play, and they play for keeps.
Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell Ph.D. Professor of Pediatrics in Child Development and Education
Our parenting advice is given as suggestions only. We recommend you also consult your healthcare provider, and urge you to contact them immediately if your question is urgent or about a medical condition.