Child’s Play Is Major Work

4 January 2017


Over all my years working in early childhood education, I have developed a healthy respect for young children and their play. Yet, I feel that too often, child’s play is described in less respectful ways. I can’t even count the times I’ve heard this phrase, “Oh, that’s simple, like child’s play.”  Play is not simple! And that’s why Skilly-do’s motto “seriously playful” is so spot on.

Play is a serious thing for children. For adults, play is what they do when they’ve finished their work. It’s a form of relaxation. But for young children, play is what they do all day. Playing is living, and living is play. Young children do not see a difference between play, learning, and work.

Children are by nature playful and their play can be challenging. Challenges intrigue them. Just think how the challenges-- and the fun-- involved in learning to walk keep a baby going on and on after every tumble. Watching my one-year old great granddaughter pulling herself up off the floor yet one more time as she perfects her walking, I can’t remember the last time I faced a physical challenge with the determination she shows as she learns to walk.  

Play is intrinsically motivated -- that is, no one else tells the young child what to do or how to do it. It is a spontaneous activity. It doesn’t necessarily result in a product. It may happen around toys and tools or may involve nothing more than the child’s imagination. Playing may last a few minutes or go on for much longer.  

Play is the essential “work” of children. The key thing to remember is that play is the mechanism by which children learn-- how they experience their world, practice new skills, and internalize new ideas. Through play children engage in activities that encourage their mental, emotional and social development. As an example, the simple banging on a drum teaches the child she can create a sound. She is also learning the important science concept of cause (the banging) and effect (sound).  

There are definite qualities that distinguish preschool children’s play:

  • Play is a process. The outcome is not as important as the process itself.
  • Play is child-initiated. The activity is done for no other reason than the child wants to do it.
  • In play, everything and anything can happen; a sheet over a table becomes a castle, and the little girl inside is the soldier.
  • Play becomes the arena for testing rules, both logical and illogical.  Rules freely appear and disappear in children’s play.  They are created from children’s previous knowledge, and may be simple or complex. An example of rules in play is the “rule” of roles. For example, when young children play house, you will often hear a child assign roles to the other children (“You be the mommy”).
  • Play is very much an activity of the mind. Children may become deeply engrossed in their play and find it difficult to stop when asked. Play involves the mind in an active process as a child investigates, explores, and inquires.  

After understanding the importance of play in the life of young children, I hope that you, too, will respect and defend your child’s right to play. For more helpful tips on what specific types of play develop your young one's creative skills, check out my young chidren and creativity series here. I also encourage you to check out our Moving activities for ideas on ways to foster your child’s imagination in creative play activities. Choose one and play alongside your child.  Did you feel playful?  Why or why not?