The Value of Play in Early Childhood Education

Michelle Bouslog
Michelle Bouslog
EdTech Teacher; M.A. Ed. in EdTech, Concordia University, St. Paul, MN

The value of play in childhood is widely known but often forgotten. Schools are dropping recesses and free choice time to keep up with the academic demands that continue to intensify. A survey taken by the National Association of Elementary School Principals in 1989 found that 96% of surveyed kindergarten classrooms had at least one recess period. A decade later, this percentage dropped to only 70%.

Additionally, some families are over-scheduling their children to keep up with the pressure they feel to expose their children early and often to every possible activity. Parents and educators alike could benefit from returning to the grassroots mindset of what play is all about: children developing secure attachments, developing key learning skills, learning to regulate their behavior, and play creating an environment that fosters speech and language development.

Developing Secure Attachments through Play

It is through play that children at a young age engage and interact with the world around them. Play time is a great opportunity for parents, care-givers, and educators to develop secure attachments. Having a secure attachment is the first social connection that helps a baby start learning. Parents who observe their children playing are given the opportunity to see the world as their child sees it. Observing play also shows the child that the parent is paying attention to them, helping to build that secure relationship and bond.

Parents serve as a solid foundation that makes a child comfortable in their desire to start exploring the world around them. When a child trusts a parent, it is easier for the child to seek help and guidance as they learn and play.

A coherent sense of self and others develops as children learn to think clearly and work through problems and obstacles as they play. Secure attachments are necessary for young children, as they send the message that when the world does not make sense to them, someone will be there for them offering support, guidance, and love.

Development of Learning Skills

Along with play helping to foster secure attachments, play also helps develop many skills. Social skills are strengthened as children play together and work towards a shared goal (like building a tower, organizing a game of hide and seek, or sharing art supplies for a project). Children must use their communication skills as they work together to solve problems that arise during their play. Play helps children learn to vocalize and appropriately express their emotions. Play also gives young children the platform for exploring other social areas, like empathy, kindness, and teamwork.

Children strengthen literacy and numeracy skills through play, as well. Looking through books or counting blocks helps put these skills into real world context. If a child is playing with play dough, they may separate it into pieces and then naturally start counting how many they have. When a child is eating a fruit snack, they may sort their pieces by size or color. Literacy and numeracy skills come up naturally through play, and giving students play opportunities strengthens these skills.

Lastly, creativity is inspired through play. When a child’s critical thinking and skill development come together, imaginative play and pretending helps foster creativity. Children may use symbolization to pretend they are eating a doughnut that is really a coaster or talking on a phone that is really their hand. Children often use imaginative play to pretend they are a firefighter, a doctor, or a teacher. Studies have shown that children who use pretend play are found to have more sophisticated levels of interaction with others and a higher cognitive ability, making yet another reason play is so important.

Learning to Regulate Behavior

Regulating behavior is another learned skill. Children can learn to regulate their thoughts, their feelings, and their behaviors by watching and responding to an adult’s self-regulation. Educators can model taking deep breaths, taking a break, or removing themselves from a frustrating situation.

During play, teachable moments often arise during which educators and parents can guide children in working towards finding a positive solution. If a student knocks over another student’s tower and makes that student frustrated, the teacher can guide the student into taking a break or stepping away from the situation until they are calm and ready to have a conversation with the other student.

As children become more capable of regulating their behavior and staying in check with their feelings, teachers can withdraw direct support while continuing to monitor for needed guidance, setting students up for success.                                                                                                                                         

Speech and Language Development through Play

From as early as prenatal development, listening skills start forming as children begin talking in sounds. Children listen to sounds people make around them, how people combine those sounds into words, and how words form sentences. As children begin to interact with the world around them, they begin to imitate those sounds.

During play, adults may model setting a block “on top” or “next to.” A child is then learning the positional words “on top” and “next to.” When playing with play dough, children listen as you model words like “soft”, “smooth”, “red”, and “blue.” As children learn vocabulary they can begin expanding that language to express their needs and wants. They can share information, engage with adults and playmates, and ask questions. Communicative abilities are strengthened, and play provides the opportunity for this language growth.

The value of play in childhood is widely known but often forgotten. Academic demands are replacing recesses and free choice time for young elementary students. It is important to remember the importance of play in developing secure attachments, learning skills, regulating behavior, and growing in speech and language development.

As Mr. Rodgers once said, “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.”

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