What is the Role of Play?

What is the Role of Play?

Play is critical to the healthy growth and development of children. Play is the best way that children develop working theories, that is learning about and making sense of themselves, other people around them, the different environments…

Through play, a child learns how to process and make sense of what sensations they receive through all their senses, sight, sound, taste, smell and touch. Play relieves stress and boredom for children, it connects children with their peers and adults in a positive way, stimulates interests, desires, exploration and creative thinking and it helps children to regulate their emotions, test theories and boosts their confidence.

Unfortunately, the importance of play is still often undervalued and underestimated. When children play, they draw upon their past experiences-things they have done, seen others do, read about, or seen on television-and they use these experiences to build games, play scenarios, and engage in activities. This repetition and replaying of experiences helps children to further develop understandings of these situations and explore how to manage and behave appropriately during any given experience they have in the future.

Play enhances language development, social competence, creativity, imagination, and thinking skills. In fact, it could be said that play is the chief vehicle for the development of imagination and intelligence, language, social skills, and perceptual-motor abilities in infants and young children. Play is so important for children because their knowledge of self, comprehension of verbal and non-verbal communication, and understanding of the physical and social worlds are expanding dramatically. Free, open-ended play offers a satisfying experience for children, allowing them to explore and discover, while at the same time developing their imagination and thinking skills.

What I hear most frequently when discussing with parents and whanau the aspirations they have for their child while at an early childhood centre is “To socialise and make friends”. Developing social interaction skills and engaging with peers is a very important step in a child’s development. It allows them to understand how relationships are formed, to develop empathy and how to see things from the points of view of others. It is a long process which evolves from the minute a baby is born right through childhood and into adolescence.

Sometimes the length of this process can be frustrating and hard to understand for parents. I remember some time ago I welcomed a new family to the centre I worked at. The family was from India and spoke Punjabi at home. Their son was not quite three years old and had never been in Early Childhood Care and Education before. They wanted him to be around a mixture of children and to make some friends. They also mentioned that he spoke almost no words in either Punjabi or English. After around three weeks his mother spoke to both the supervisor and myself about her concerns that her son did not seem to be playing ‘with’ any children yet. We both reassured her that he had been spending a lot of time observing the other children and was beginning to imitate their actions and try to become involved in their play. It made me think about finding some information for this child’s parents to reassure them that he was right on track with his social development.

Many things can influence the type of play a child will participate in such as; their age and development level, their temperament, the environment they are in and how well they know the other children around them. In her 1929 dissertation Mildred Parten Newhall described her ‘Stages of Play’ theory after observing preschool aged children engaged in free play in America. Her theory classifies types of play and how children engage in play and while aspects have been called into question since it came about, it is still widely used by psychologists and educators. Parten described six stages of play she observed. (www.gemschicagoearlyyears.com)

  • Unoccupied play– The child is seemingly not engaged or actively playing with others at all. They may remain stationary and be engaged in random movements with no objective. This stage of play is mostly seen in newborns and infants, between the ages of 0 and 2. This is an important setting stage for future play exploration and development.
  • Solitary play– During this stage of play, children will often play alone, with toys different from those of others, and be uninterested or unaware of what others around them are doing. This stage of play is most commonly seen in young toddlers between the ages of 1 and 3, but it is important for children of all age groups to participate in from time to time. Solitary play is common at a young age because cognitive, physical and social skills have yet to fully develop. This type of play is important because it teaches children how to entertain themselves.
  • Onlooker play– Onlooker play is when a child observes others playing but does not join the play. They will frequently engage in other forms of social interactions such as conversations to learn more about the game or play that is going on.  This type of play is common in younger children between the ages of 2 and 3½, but can take place at any age.
  • Parallel play– This occurs when children play side-by-side from one another, but there is a lack of group involvement amongst them. They will typically be playing with similar toys and often mimic one another.  Parallel play is common in toddlers between the ages of 2 ½ and 3 ½ but can take place at any age. Although it looks like there is very little contact between them, these children are learning valuable social skills and actually learn quite a lot from one another. For this reason, parallel play is important as a transitory stage for the development of social maturity, which is key to later stages of play.
  • Associative play– At this stage, children will begin to play together, but not focused towards a common goal. A child will be more interested in playing with other children around them than the individual toys they play with. Associative play is slightly different than parallel play as children may continue to play separately from one another, but they start to become more involved in what others around them are doing.  You may find children playing or trading with the same toys or actively talking with or engaging one another, but no rules of play are being set. This type of play typically begins around ages 3 or 4, extending into the pre-school age. This is an important stage of play because it develops necessary skills such as cooperation, problems solving, and language development.
  • Cooperative play– Cooperative play is where play finally becomes organized into groups and teamwork is seen.  Children are now interested in both the people that they are playing with as well as the activity at hand.  The group is more formalised with a leader, as well as other assigned roles, and play organises around accomplishing group goals or specific tasks.  Cooperative play begins in the late preschool period, between the ages of 4 and 6. It is uncommon to see children reach this stage until these later years, as it requires an evolved set of organisational skills and a higher degree of social maturity. Cooperative play is indeed the culmination, bringing together all the skills learned across previous stages into action, giving the child the necessary skills for social and group interactions.

As we can see the development of social interaction skills during play can be a lengthy process and for some children it can be very challenging. Ensuring children know they have someone they can trust and feel secure with can be great to help them on this journey. Being there for assistance if they ask and giving them prompts of how to engage with other children can be very beneficial for children who struggle to initiate contact. We know it can be as simple as saying “Can I play with you”? but for children this takes a long time to learn.




Interested in learning more about this topic? Check out our course – The Role of Play – via the Online Learning Hub.

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