Watching children play may seem like it’s all fun and games, but if you take a closer look, there’s a lot of learning going on. Babies and toddlers explore their physical world by playing with simple items like rattles, plastic cups and bowls, and their all time favorite toy, the empty box. They are fascinated by sand or water in a cup and finding that they can dump it out. They will explore every facet of an empty box, and if it’s big enough they will even crawl into it.
Toddlers will often play side by side but not necessarily with each other. As they reach pre-school age, they begin to play cooperatively. They imitate what they see adults do, they create every day scenarios, and they begin to cooperate with each other. They create specific roles and rules for pretend behavior and adopt multiple themes and multiple roles. They learn how to negotiate who is going to be the “mommy” and who is going to be the “baby.” They use props such as dolls, toy dishes, and dress-up clothes. They construct “houses” with sheets on a clothes line. It’s as if they are trying to re-enact what they see in their every day lives, or what they know of it so far. Children from all cultures play in a similar manner.
Play actually helps foster social interaction and cognitive development. It helps children realize that others have feelings and needs and it is important to consider other’s perspective.
Most elementary teachers would not expect students to enter first grade already knowing how to read, spell, or do math, but they do hope their students will arrive already knowing how to concentrate, cooperate, pay attention, and be considerate of others. These are the kinds of things children learn through play while interacting with peers.
Today some children don’t have as much opportunity for “constructive play” and this is influenced by several factors. In many households both parents have to work, and due to hectic pick-up / drop-off schedules, children don’t have the opportunity to play with other kids in their neighborhood. TV, video games, and the computer also cut in on that time. They also interact with modern toys that are not always conducive to building imagination and make-pretend play themes. There are more adult-organized and directed activities than in years past, such as sports and dance classes.
A good opportunity for constructive, creative play can be found in early childhood classrooms. Children can play with others from various backgrounds and similar age groups. They can see their peers on a regular basis where large blocks of time are devoted to playing and exploring. Playing may not look very important to the untrained eye, but if you take a closer look, you’ll see children are learning more and more about the world every day.