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What is Play Anyway?; www.beyondtheblackboard.com

What is Play, Anyway?

Jean Boylan
Jean Boylan

January 15, 2024 4 min read

All children play. In fact, many animals play, too. We know it when we see it, but what is it exactly? Is it the same across all cultures? Is it limited to children? Can it be directed? Is it just spontaneous stuff kids do, or should we be managing play time?

The definition itself is a bit elusive. But the 17th century proverb, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” demonstrates that even before the study of modern neuroscience, there was a recognition that play has value and is critical for the development of a well-rounded child.

As scientists step in to study play, a clearer definition emerges. Play is internally motivated activity that results in joyful discovery. Play is self-chosen and self-directed. While playing, the means are what matters - not the end. Time elapses without your knowledge. Your mind is so focused on your activity that you lose the distraction of other thoughts. Full absorption and free flow of thought is the "nirvana" of play. It can be based in reality, or purely imaginative and make believe.

Play is not frivolous! It's fun and often spontaneous, but it's also developmentally vital. Play can happen at any age, but it's critical at young ages when children’s brains and skills are growing at an exponential rate.

Play promotes social-emotional, cognitive, language, and self-regulation skills that help form and maintain safe, stable, and nurturing relationships throughout life. Play gives children a chance to practice all these skills in a safe way. Play enhances brain structure and function, and promotes good thinking, problem solving and focus - all important and sometimes overlooked skills! It also builds fine and gross motor skills, spatial understanding, cause and effect, language, and social skills. 

Depending on the culture of the adults in their world, children learn different social skills through play. When to say please and thank you is a great example. Did you know that in China it's considered too formal and even rude to thank your close family members?  

Play is fundamentally important for learning 21st century skills such as problem solving, collaboration, and creativity. All require the executive functioning skills that are critical for adult success. In order to thrive, our children will need to innovate rather than imitate, and be creative rather than conform! (I'll leave what this implies for our school curriculum for another day!) 

Kinds of Play

Object Play

This type of play occurs when an infant or child explores an object to learn about the world around them. This is “playing with a toy”. The play begins with concrete taste, smell, touch and sound, and progresses to symbolic play such as using a banana as a telephone or a shoe as a car. These moments are creative, spontaneous and fun.

little boy in a turquoise shirt pretending to use a banana as a telephone

 Rough and Tumble Play

This type of play progresses from pat-a-cake games to the acquisition of foundational motor skills in toddlers, to the free play seen at school recess and eventually team sports. Rough-and-tumble play, which is akin to the play seen in animals, enables children to take risks in a relatively safe environment and to build gross motor skills. Equally important, this play teaches interpersonal skills and communication. Children learn to listen to their own bodies and de-escalate from "revved up" mode!

Pretend Play

Pretending is a creative way for a child to express themselves and practice what they are learning in the “real” world. They can do this alone, with other children, or even with adults. The child can direct the scenario or be lead by others to participate. Dress up, make believe, and imaginary play encourage the use of language and provide practice living within the rules, i.e. "You are the princess, but I am the queen!"

Self-Directed Play

The million-dollar question now is how much should I direct my child versus let them have total free play?  Both have a role. And both are necessary. Be conscious of your balance. Modern culture tends to overprotect, and we are increasingly encouraging indoor play or screen time because it's safe and clean. The role of adults should be to provide safe oversight to a wide range of options. Let them go! Then, balance that with interactions from across the room, and then move to 1:1 "elbow" work when you can actually teach them new skills. Remember, sometimes it's better to learn through error and sometimes it works better to have a little guidance to master a skill.

An African American father and his toddler son assemble a floor puzzle on the floor of their home. Minimal, modern, yet warm furnishings are visible in the background of the image.

Above all else - enjoy observing and interacting with your child every chance you can. They grow so fast and pass through each stage in the blink of an eye. Seize every opportunity, because play is not just fun - it trains the brain!

Do Children Need Toys to Play?

Yes and no. Kids can have a great time using their imaginations to play with sticks and stones and the contents in the kitchen cabinets.  However, as American children spend more and more time indoors and in front of screens, they also need the variety of engaging with educational toys. These toys are more than just fun and games. When they are properly designed to address the appropriate developmental stage of your child, they're providing stimulating growth opportunities. As children approach school age, many - if not all - of the academic skills such as colors, shapes, letters, numbers can be taught through fun toys and games. Throughout elementary school, you can keep learning fun when you support the fundamentals of reading and math with great family games. Children don’t need tons of toys. They simply need well designed, safe toys that will last. Our Shop by Age sections above will help provide just the right toys for your child!


For more on play, check out this article from Psychology Today on the value of play.

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