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What does play mean?

When working with young children, understanding what play means and how to use it to teach life skills to children are important in developing successful adults.

Every child can learn while playing. Understanding what play means can be beneficial in helping children learn life skills such as cooperation, communication, responsibility, respect and a whole lot more. Let’s explore what “play” means and how it can be used in teaching children.

According to “What is play?” from Study Mode Research, “From an early age, play is important to a child's development and learning. It isn't just physical. It can involve cognitive, imaginative, creative, emotional and social aspects. It is the main way most children express their impulse to explore, experiment and understand.”

There are many aspects of play—play therapy, early childhood and play, free play and value of play. Bernie Badegruber, educator and author of “101 Life Skills Games” and “101 More Life Skills Games,” discusses the five characteristics of play. He states that to understand what makes an activity “play,” we must understand what play means.

  1. Purpose—the activity does not have a clear purpose children are aware of. The child does not realize they are supposed to learn something from playing, but the adult knows the child is learning and has a purpose.
  2. Play is voluntary—never force anyone to play a game. You can start and stop anytime.
  3. Rules—are they any? They can be flexible, changed or adapted as long as they are understood by all. Creativity comes from change and being flexible.
  4. Emotional responses are short-lived. Feelings of joy, hope, sense of belonging, fear, relief and many others can be intense or we can just say “it’s just a game.”
  5. Experiment—this gives youth a chance to try different ways to play the game. Experimenting, inventing and creating new ways to play the game gives youth a chance to learn something new.

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

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