The importance of play in child development

Maria Montessori, an Italian physician and educator best known for the philosophy of education that bears her name, once said, “Play is the work of the child”. In this article, we will discuss the importance of play in early childhood development and look at ways that parents and caregivers can encourage kids to play as part of their development. 

Play is important to healthy brain development as it allows children the opportunity to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength. 

It is through play that children, at a very early age, engage and interact with the world around them. Play allows children to create and explore a world they can master, conquering their fears, whilst also learning to socialise and interact with other children or adults. 

As they master their world, play helps children develop new competencies that lead to enhanced confidence and the resilience they will need to face future challenges. Undirected play allows children to learn how to:

  • work in groups,
  • share, 
  • negotiate, 
  • resolve conflicts, and 
  • learn self-advocacy skills

When play is allowed to be child-driven, children practice decision-making skills, learn at their own pace, discover their own areas of interest, and ultimately engage fully in the passions they wish to pursue. Generally, play involves some form of adult supervision, but when play is controlled by adults, children comply with adult rules and concerns and lose some of the benefits that self-directed play offers them, particularly in developing creativity, leadership, and group skills.

Imaginative play fosters creativity

Imaginative play, or ‘make-believe’ as it is often referred to, happens when a child role-plays experiences of interest, such as playing ‘school’ or pretending to shop with their toys. Children may engage in imaginative play alone or with others. There are several benefits that imaginative play contributes to a child’s development.

Imaginative play fosters creativity by providing a safe space for children to act out scenarios of their choosing, including situations that they may not be able to experience in real life. For example, a 5-year-old who cannot prepare herself a meal without her parent’s supervision can, through imaginative play with her friend, create a pretend meal they can both imagine eating and enjoying at home. It also gives children opportunities to learn about other people’s perspectives, like how their parents might react to situations while they are playing ‘house’.

Physical play improves dexterity and physical strength

Physical play benefits children by developing their fine and gross motor skills. Play with movement supports the understanding of spatial relations and physical development areas like balance and dexterity. These all contribute to core strength which is vital for enhanced cognitive development and other gross motor skills such as energy, stamina, flexibility and body awareness.  

Activities which improve dexterity include running, jumping, swimming, block building, bike riding, climbing trees and dancing. 

Play supports cognitive development

Cognitive development is your child’s ability to think, understand, communicate, remember (recall), imagine and work out what might happen next. Cognitive development involves children making observations, gathering information and analysing ideas. These developed thinking skills can influence decision-making in a child as they start to demonstrate complex thinking and form their own opinions.  Most importantly, cognitive development in a child plays a crucial role in building skills which influence adolescence. Cognitive growth lays a path to a successful future. 

Play that promotes cognitive development will involve thinking and reasoning.  Playing repetitive oral games, such as, “I went to the beach” also helps to aid memory skills. Each person recalls what the others said and adds their own item. 

For example;

Child 1: “I went to the beach and took a spade.” 

Child 2: “I went to the beach and took a spade and a bucket.” 

Child 3: “I went to the beach and took a spade, a bucket and my towel.” 

And so on.

Circle name games are another fun activity that can aid in cognitive development. For this game, children sit in a circle and call out the name of something that belongs in a specific subject or category, without repeating one already named. For example, if the category is fruit, then children may call out “apple”, “orange”, “pear” and so on until one of the kids cannot think of a fruit or repeats one already named. The categories should be age appropriate.

Board games, card games and chess all support cognitive development.  

Play improves emotional strength

Most group play will involve either winning or losing. Learning about competition and processing victory or defeat is a vital part of childhood development. Children need to learn that in any competition there will always be winners and losers and the ability to accept this will develop a child’s emotional intelligence.  

Encouraging a child to free-play is as important in their learning and development as learning to read. It is through play that children develop an inquiring mind and their ability for exploration, imagination and decision-making.  

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