The power of play – Part 2: Born to play

What is play and why is it important?

Children learn about the world and themselves through the freedom to play.
Children learn about the world and themselves through the freedom to play.

In “Free to Learn,” author Peter Gray describes the developmental importance of play for young children. When we say children are “just playing,” this implies that play is simply the pursuit of entertainment. This view is not only wrong, but potentially detrimental, especially if we are using play to define how young children learn.

Children learn through play and research shows that it is useful, engaging and has positive, lifelong impacts for children. So, if play is not a silly time waster nor an academic pursuit like classroom learning, what is it?

What is play?

  • Self-chosen and self-directed. Doing what one wants to do instead of what one is supposed to or forced to do. Children are engaged through play when the play is self-led. It’s much more engaging to participate in activities that are interesting and relevant to one’s own needs and interests.
  • The process, not the product. Play is exploration without a care what the end result will be. A child running through a field, chasing clouds is play, as the child isn’t concerned about what will happen or what they will receive at the end. A child running a race, anticipating a medal, is not play. Play can, however, have goals; but those goals are generally focused on the creation of something instead of the end product itself.
  • Individually constructed. Play isn’t necessarily a big jumble of activities. Play has structure to it, it’s just created by the individual involved to meet their needs and desires. Play is self-governing, in the sense that children create the boundaries for themselves. For instance, when a child is engaged in pretend play, they decide how their play will be structured.
  • Imaginative. The structure of play can be imaginative in that the play is governed by rules that don’t fit in the real world. For example, Pegasus can’t fly to the castle because his wing is broken, when in reality, Pegasus can’t fly to the castle because horses don’t have wings.
  • Active. Play activities often take place when children are alert and active, but it is not stressful. Children engage in active thinking to engage in play – they are thinking about what they are doing and how they are doing it.

Born to play

While the process of learning how to play may seem like a mystery, it’s actually something we’re born with. Children are born with the drive and capacity to learn through play, specifically through these natural internal drives:

  • Curiosity. Children are naturally curious. From the infant who reaches out to touch their father’s face, to the toddler that empties all the pots and pans out of the cupboard, children are instinctively driven to learn about the world around them by manipulating it. Curiosity motivates children to look for knowledge and understanding.
  • Playfulness. Again, children are naturally playful. This drive for playfulness encourages children to learn and practice new skills and to come up with creative ways to use those skills. This is demonstrated by a child’s ability to turn anything from a hairbrush to a cardboard box into a toy. Children are programmed to find fun in the world.
  • Sociability. Humans are social creatures by design. We have a natural inclination to form social connections with others and build relationships. In this way, children have a natural ability to reach out to others in order to share information and experiences. Social interactions allow us to form shared experiences, learn from each other, and build from other’s experiences.

Supporting play

Michigan State University Extension has suggestions for supporting your child’s ability to play and enhance their play experiences.

  • Participate. Engage in play, but pay special attention to children’s desires when playing. Keep children engaged and learning by letting them take the lead. Adults may have more of the answers than children due to life experiences, but children have a wonderfully naïve way of viewing the world without boundaries. They can form connections and come up with ideas that adults may discredit. Encourage your child to push the limits.
  • Encourage mistakes. Sometimes it’s hard not to take over because we, as adults, feel like we know the best way to do things and how to avoid mistakes. Remember that mistakes are an important part of the process. Reevaluating after a mistake and making a new plan supports critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
  • Build a playful space. Create a space where children are safe and free to play and explore as they wish. Remove dangerous items and fill the space with open-ended materials that can be used in many different ways. Encourage your child to use their imagination and problem-solving skills.
  • Trust them. Children know how to play – they just need you to trust them to do it! Give children the space, freedom and permission they need to explore their world through play. Adults should be present to support their play as needed, but learn to let them be.

Remember that children are programmed to learn important skills through play. It is their natural way of learning about the world and themselves. These learning experiences that happen through play will not always have tangible outcomes, like a gold-starred worksheet to hang on the fridge, but instead they have a strong and lasting impact on a child’s development as a whole. Just like running builds new muscles and makes a person stronger, play strengthens children’s brains, encourages development and keeps them happy.

“Children are biologically predisposed to take charge of their own education. When they are provided with the freedom and means to pursue their own interests, in safe settings, they bloom and develop along diverse and unpredictable paths, and they acquire the skills and confidence required to meet life’s challenges,” from Peter Gray, “Play to Learn.”

For more articles on child development, academic success, parenting and life skill development, please visit the Michigan State University Extension website.

Other articles in this series

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