Why is Play So Important to Children's Development?
As we get older, we tend to think of play as the opposite of work; the thing we do at the end of the day. For children, nothing could be further from the truth - play is an essential part of learning, which helps children to develop physically, socially and emotionally. It’s how they figure out the world around them. Play is so important for children that it’s even part of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

We’re not the only ones that play, either. Animals of all kinds show signs of ‘playing’, from dolphins to chimpanzees, so clearly something important is going on in our brains when we play. Since today is Play Day 2020, we wanted to explore why play is so important to children’s development.

What is Play?

It’s almost impossible to pin down a definition of ‘play’, since humans are capable of turning almost any activity into play. Generally, though, play activities are ones that we choose to do, that involve some degree of creativity and that we find fun! We’re going to think of play as being split into three categories:

  • Guided Play: For children, this is usually set up by someone else, like an adult. It could be a sports team, or a drama club.
  • Independent Play: Anything that children do by themselves. It can mean playing with toys, solving puzzles, telling stories using their imaginations, etc.
  • Social Play: This is the play that we do with other people; tossing a ball or chasing each other around the garden, sharing toys, or role playing!

Since the 19th century, thinkers have put forward all kinds of explanations about why we play. Some said it was about burning off energy, while others said it was about recharging our batteries. Sigmund Freud believed play was about working through negative emotions, while Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget came up with a theory called assimilation. When children play, he argued, they’re mimicking behaviours they see in the world around them, and trying to make sense of those behaviours using information they already have. Think about a child holding a toy banana to their ear after they’ve seen someone talking on the phone, or playing ‘shops’ by exchanging one toy with another. 

What are the Benefits of Play?

Though there’s no consensus on why human beings play, it’s clear that there are benefits to playing from an early age: 

  • Intellectual Development: Play of all kinds builds a child’s creativity and problem-solving skills. 
  • Social Development: Social play means learning empathy and consideration for the feelings of others, and can lead to sharing of ideas.
  • Emotional Development: Play can sometimes lead to feelings like frustration, but this can also help children learn to anticipate and self-regulate those feelings.
  • Physical Development: Play helps children to develop their strength, muscle control, coordination, and reflexes. 

Play in the Digital Age

In our increasingly online world, there are fewer and fewer opportunities for physical independent or social play. Screens can dominate our children’s attention from a very early age with brightly-coloured games and videos, and parents are more cautious about letting their children play independently outside - and a study by the university of Oxford found that as many as one in five children were worried about leaving the house at the beginning of the pandemic. Some academics have even linked a rise in ‘digital play’ to increases in anxiety and depression among younger people, though it’s hard to pin this trend down to just one factor. 
Rather than thinking about screen time as the ‘death of play’, however, we should think about better ways of incorporating screen time into independent, guided and social play. Creative games like Minecraft can be as stimulating as a LEGO set, and can even provide opportunities for social play when enjoyed with friends. The important thing is that, like Piaget theorised, we teach children to think about the ways they behave in the real world and assimilate those habits into balanced, productive screen time!

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