Play Is the Work of Childhood

Betsy Brown Braun
February 23, 2012

Parent (animatedly): What did you do in school today?

Child (contentedly): I played.

This response should make your heart sing, but I fear it doesn't. 

News headlines sounding the alarm that U.S. students are falling behind other countries in science and math, that there is an ever increasing competition for getting into colleges, into private high schools, into elementary schools, and even into nursery schools are eating away at our belief in the importance of just playing.

Parents are suffering from the misguided notion that in order for their children to "compete" in this world, to stay in the game, to claw their way to the top, they have to stop playing and start doing some real learning. Play is getting a bad rap.

And here's why. When adults think of children playing, they think of it in the adult sense of the word -- a recreational activity that isn't work. But play is the work of childhood. It is the most potent learning activity of them all.

Play is a crucial ingredient not only in neurological growth but also in supporting development in all realms -- social, emotional, cognitive, creative, and physical -- practicing the skills the child will need later in life.

Imaginative or pretend play, in particular, is a powerful learning tool for the young child. Both solitary and with friends, "dramatic play" is a vehicle by which children not only practice the skills they are acquiring but also process their daily lives. They play out and replay events they are working hard to understand: who is the boss in the family; how does dinner get cooked; when the dog is rushed to the vet; when daddy sends me to my room. They practice the life they observe all around them: the fire truck, the cab driver, the refuse collector, the dogs and cats and crying babies. Imaginative play allows children the space and time to work on their understanding, their conflicts, as well as on their anxieties and fears. Unstructured pretend play with others offers the opportunity to practice social skills such as taking turns, considering another's viewpoint and needs, learning self control, sharing the power, problem solving, compromise, and trying on different roles. 

Pretend play is practice for real life. We all know how much practice it takes to do anything worthwhile. What could be more important?

Children use play to work through and master quite complex psychological difficulties of the past and present.

Play refers to the young child's activities characterized by freedom from all but personally imposed rules (which are changed at will) by free wheeling fantasy involvement, and by the absence of any goals outside the activity itself.

Games are different. They are usually competitive and are characterized by agreed upon often externally imposed rules by a requirement to use the implements of the activity in the manner for which they are intended and not as fancy.

Play is an opportunity for pure enjoyment. Games can involve considerable stress.

Children ages three to five are masters at play. Play is the business and the work of their lives. Sometimes alone and sometimes in collaboration with others, these masters play out their fantasies and fears, process their daily lives, hone their social and language skills, grow confidence and competence, and feel very big.

From the Parents

  • Parent # 1

    I like the article and it has a lot of valid points that parents of young children should pay attention to. However, I disagree with the author's take on games. Appropriate games for preschoolers ( duck, duck, goose and hide and go seek) teach valuable turn taking skills and strategy. I think balance in a preschool these days is key.

    over a year ago

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