The Central Importance of Play

I’ve been wanting to write about the importance of play for some time, but every time I try to do it the enormity of the topic just overwhelms me. How on earth can you contain in a single post the huge significance of a playful childhood?! So instead I want to simply outline a few key points and illustrate with the various forms that playfulness takes in the early years.
                        

 “Play is the royal road to childhood happiness and adult brilliance.” Joseph Chiltern Pearce

Children are playful by nature:


From a very young age children interact with the world around them using all of their senses, taking cues from those who engage with them and imitating their actions, sounds and behaviours. We are our child’s most important and influential teachers and we are being watched, constantly. We are not all, however, instinctively good at knowing how to play with our babies and toddlers, especially if we haven’t had much contact with young people in our lives before becoming parents, but it’s easy to learn. Playing with our children is much more natural and much less scary than we realise. For example, almost everybody at some point just “knows” to play Peekaboo with a baby, and just think of all the skills that little game teaches a child! Communication, interaction, taking turns, cause and effect, humour, object permanence, eye contact, facial gestures, emotions and the list could go on! All from a simple, easy game that requires absolutely nothing but a willing, engaged parent.
                          
Children develop their learning capabilities in the first 5 years:


I once went on a training course where they shared this information, and it was sobering to hear. A child’s brain develops more rapidly in the first 5 years of life than it ever does again, forming so many connections between the left and right side of the brain and essentially establishing its “ability” to learn new information in the future. A child left with no stimulation or enriching playful experiences is going to learn more poorly after the age of 5 than a child who has been played with, talked to, read to and stimulated on a regular basis. They need to interact with toys, materials, books, multi-sensory experiences and nature in order to develop real building blocks for learning. Too much screen time limits the sensory interaction, crushes creative, imaginative development and limits time spent communicating with others. Of course some TV and computer time is fine, as balance is so important, but some children’s activities tend to be top-heavy in this area.

 “There is nothing that human beings do, know, think, hope and fear that has not been attempted, experienced, practised or at least anticipated in children’s play” Heidi Britz-Crecelius



How can we play with our children?


Playing with a young child takes on so many forms and we are familiar with them from our own childhood experiences. It doesn’t require anything extraordinary or expensive, and oftentimes it’s the natural or recycled resources that offer the most diverse and interesting play experiences. Playing with our children should be fun, relaxed, low-pressure and woven into every part of our ordinary daily routines. Here are a few examples of the types of play that we can engage with every day with our children.



Heuristic Play:  This sounds high-brow but really all it means is playing with “objects.” This is the type of thing our grandparents figured out a long time ago without any text books or websites to tell them what to do! Give a child a new toy and within a few minutes all he wants to do is rip the paper and twizzle the ribbon between his fingers. Try and set him up with a game in the living room and he follows you to the kitchen and happily pulls out all of the pots and pans, stacking and banging them together and making a wonderful mess! This all makes perfect sense because only by testing and exploring these real life objects can young children work out how to use them in life! It’s also a wonderful release for us as parents, because we don’t have to constantly fork out for the next expensive toy all of the time! (In fact, we’ll probably be doing them a favour if we don’t.)
                           

Exploring a Treasure Basket of found and natural objects. Babies can start this from when they can sit up! Far more open-ended and stimulating than a plastic, electronic toy with one or two functions.

                          

Playing with cotton wool balls and pads! Who knows why or what she’s thinking.

                          

Filling and emptying a cake tin with cardboard tubes and opening and closing boxes.

Sorting and stacking with some nesting mixing bowls.



Sensory/ Messy Play:


This is by FAR the most important way that young children learn as it’s all about the senses at this stage of development. Indeed it’s mainly through taste and touch that they are discovering and making sense of the world in the first 3 years of life. And yet we often resist these activities because of the mess that it involves (and I totally understand this feeling!) However, you can always do these things in the garden, the bath, on the kitchen floor or in a deep, plastic tray to contain things a little bit. Your child will thank you for ever for giving them some of these experiences in early life!
                           

Blowing and mixing bubbles in coloured water.

                           

Playing with coloured shaving foam (in our outdoor water table!)

                         

Sticking matchsticks and other objects into play dough. Play dough and salt dough are SO easy to make and offer such a rich variety of playing and learning experiences. See the tab in my header for recipes.

                  

Simple water play fun, pouring and splashing and sitting in it! The bath is, of course, the world’s best water play facility :-)

                       

Playing with (and indeed in!) packing noodles, shredded paper, hay, straw, sand, mud etc.



I’m a firm believer that a child needs to be allowed to get messy and that it really won’t harm them to do so! Too much anxiety about getting messy and eventually they won’t even want to do painting and glueing as they will be afraid of it. What a shame! (I’m not talking about children who have a genuine sensory problem here, of course.)


Imaginary and Role Play:


This develops younger than we realise as it’s all about imitation. Baby watches us cooking three times a day and soon enough baby wants to stir in a play saucepan and cook at a toy oven! There are some wonderful resources on the market for role play and imaginative play, such as toy cookers, dolls and prams, shops, market stalls, tool kits, dolls houses and fire stations. You can also set up role play scenes for no money at all using a cardboard box to represent a car/ house/ shop/ space ship/ police station/ boat etc. The less pre-described toys and the greater the imaginative resources the child will have to draw on. 
                       

Having a picnic tea on the floor with a favourite teddy.

                      

Delivering the mail in a cardboard post box!

Building on a building site using blocks, tape measures, tools and hard hats!

                    

Driving a cardboard box car (filled with balls for an extra sensory dimension!)



Small World Play:


This is another form of imaginary play and dolls houses, police stations, fire stations, hospitals etc would all fit into this category too. Small world is exactly what it sounds like- a miniature play scene with figures, objects, scenery and a sensory element to enrich play and stimulate imaginative, creative and language development. Children as young as 2 and a half can begin telling their own stories through scenes like these.

A seaside small world scene with shells, pebbles and sand in a tray with some figures and a yoghurt pot for a boat.
Some beans, wood, real leaves, bark, dried pasta and play dough make up a dinosaur small world scene.



These sorts of scenes can be created by older children all by themselves and are totally absorbing for them to work on as a project.


Outdoor Play:


There is some powerful research that suggests the most important and special memories from our childhoods usually take place outside. When I think back to what mine are, this is definitely true for me. It was the summers spent playing outdoors with my brothers in Italy, camping under sheet tents over the washing line, tramping through grassy fields on adventures, making mud pies in the garden and rock-pooling at the beach. Not a lot of the “best bits” happened inside. And, funnily enough, I don’t remember being cold out there. We don’t all have gardens but we do all live near at least a park or playground, if not a short distance from the countryside or seaside.
                  
Running through a giant muddy puddle at the park! Oftentimes it’s just about getting the right all-weather gear for them to wear, and then wrapping up warmly ourselves! (a flask of coffee never hurts either ;-)
                           

Learning some new gross motor skills at the playground!

Playing in the garden together in all weathers!

Having a space of their own to dig and play without fear of messing things up.



Creative Play:


This covers art, craft, music making and dramatic play. These are some of the easiest activities to set up as there are so many great resources out there to buy for young children and a plethora of ideas to follow on the internet!
                          

Babies can get involved too! Finger painting fun.

                          

Colouring, tearing and sticking.

                         

Painting and printing with everyday and recycled materials.

                        

Making collages with scraps of fabric.

                        

Creating texture in paint by dragging through forks, pizza cutters and other objects.

                        

Painting and glueing sequins onto a pumpkin!

                        

Making models from junk materials and using them for exploratory play. Rolling balls down tube slides in this case!



Reading books, story telling and puppet play:


These are so vital for a child’s development of language and literacy skills, not to mention just how much information about the world is picked up through every story or information book that is shared. Children should be surrounded by age appropriate books and also read to from slightly “older” books too to offer a rich and stimulating range of vocabulary, concepts and ideas. Rhyming books and picture books are fundamental staples for all under 5s. Ideally, books should be in most rooms of the house and in easy to access, low level boxes or baskets.

Reading in a cardboard play tunnel we made!

                 

Finding your own spaces for looking at books. In this case, the washing basket!

Creating cosy spots for snuggling up together!

Playful childhoods create happy, independent, creative and imaginative children. Albert Einstein said “Imagination is more important than knowledge” which is a pretty mind-blowing statement if you take the time to think about it! We are the most important people in our children’s lives during these early, formative years and if we take the time out of our busy schedules to sit down and play with them, talk to them, make up stories and sing together we will be offering them the best scaffolding on which to build their later life experiences. We just need a range of good quality, toys, blocks and imaginary play items, cardboard boxes, recycled materials, art supplies, books and…most importantly…time!
And to sum up, perhaps my favourite play quote of all by George Bernard Shaw:

 “You don’t stop playing because you grow old, you grow old because you stop playing.”

So, let’s keep playing and stay young! 

72 comments to The Central Importance of Play

  • What a wonderful post! The part about children that don’t get the proper attention makes me tear up too. Your pictures of your daughters are absolutely gorgeous—-so precious! Who would not want to be your Mom (or Mum as you would say)? Thanks for sharing! I will share this on my personal fb page and fan fb page.

  • Wow! I am a firm believer in the importance of play and have read many articles on this topic. This one is my favourite! Eloquently said, effectively demonstrated, and truly inspiring! I am sharing this with every parent and teacher I know! Thank you!

  • This made my day. I’ve really been wondering if I’m doing a good job being “mom.” I’ve really gotten down on myself, but this post has brought new life into me like a cup of coffee! Thank you for this!

  • Thank you for the lovely comments. Kristen, I’m so touched that it made your day. I’m sure you are doing a wonderful job as a mother! I am very also very happy being described as a cup of coffee- Fabulous!! ;-)

  • I want to go wake up my little ones! Great post, very nicely put.

  • Hi Anna,
    i like how you broke the play down into various categories, and the photos of your girls are perfect illustrations. I bet this is one of those posts that people will come to your blog for, for years to come. Maybe there’s a way you can highlight this or give it its own tab so it doesn’t get buried?

  • Brilliant post!! Would like to send this to every infant school & early years setting across the land!

  • Thank you for this post, I’m inspired to go try out some of these ideas!

  • Beautiful post.I love the pictures. Haven’t read all the posts but you deserve to win :)

  • Well, I’m going to share the heck out of this one. Kids need to play. As the mother of a sensory-seeking kid on the autism spectrum, and I sensory defensive kid, I know that all kids need to play. There are some wonderful ideas here, great job!

  • Rosie

    You’re such an inspiration! I want to run home from work and play now. Thank you for putting this together.

  • Erika M.

    GREAT article!!!!! I can’t tell you how many times I have heard “oh it’s just play” without anyone ever realizing that it is SO MUCH MORE than just playing when it comes to developmental milestones and learning. I love to see this articles because even as a teacher it reminds me to get back to basics and children don’t need the extra expensive toys, just parents and caregivers who open their eyes to the wonderful things we see and do everyday. I will re-post this in my FB to share with others in hopes that it opens eyes and reminds others to “just play” :)

  • THANK YOU so much for your feedback on this post. I’m really pleased that you have shared it and found it to be encouraging.

  • What a beautiful illustration of the importance of play! Bloggers like you truly give blogging a great name! Thank you for sharing your experiences from a Mom-Teacher. Truly inspirational!

  • Anna, this is such an affirming post. I really love it. And who wouldn’t want to play all day. Play is so much fun :)

  • Great information, lots to come back and refer to. Thank you.

  • Enjoyed this and makes me feel better about having a child who loves to sieve compost.

    One question though, how do you define play? When is a child’s activity play and when isn’t it? It sort of seems obvious but thinking through, I’m not sure that it is, at least to me.
    Thanks
    Sarah

  • Always believed in it. Loved it. Thanks for all the great ideas.

  • Sarah that’s a great question. Are you referring to defining play-based learning/teaching? In which case that could make for a whole other post! I will certainly start to formulate one to address that, but in brief I would say a teaching activity is truly play-based if it is:
    1) open ended (without an adult-directed objective in mind)
    2) child led and child centred
    3) based on the child’s current abilities and interests
    But there’s MUCH more to the answer than that. Will have a go at writing a post!

  • Anna, I wasn’t really thinking about play based learning/teaching although it does overlap(and a post on this would be great as this approach to learning is certainly something that I’ve been thinking though and would like to know more about) but thinking about the definition of playing.
    For example, when my toddler stands beside me in the kitchen whilst I am preparing a meal, and asks to cut the mushrooms with his plastic knife, is he playing or working? Similarly, if he “helps” sieve compost is he playing or working?
    I guess from this definition that if he choses to do this, as he enjoys being with a parent, then he is playing although if I suggested that he repeated this on another occasion, would that become work?
    From a Hebraic, Biblical model of education then learning alongside a parent is particularly important but this wouldn’t always be child led and child centred. Fascinating to think this through and its implications in practice.

  • I really love this post. You do such great stuff with your kids.

  • Thanks for this post. I love all your ideas for play and it’s true that play is so important. Each form of play can teach them something different. You’re right that they don’t need expensive toys and they are happy with open ended materials. I’ve linked up to your post on my weekly favorites here: http://play2grow.blogspot.com/2011/04/weekly-favorites-for-april-3-2011.html

  • This is amazing! Thanks for a great post! I’m going to add this to my features for this week’s link party. Stop by and grab an A++ button!

    http://sunscholars.blogspot.com/2011/04/for-kids-friday-6.html

    :)rachel

  • yeh!, i’m making a sofa den now!

  • I am so inspired by this. It is too easy to slip into lazy TV ways. I love spending time playing with my toddler and often forget this in the rush to get other things done. I will definatly create a garden area and I’m popping out to buy shaving foam and an outside water table. :)

  • Thanks for writing this! You’ve inspired me with some great ideas for playing with my daughter. Oh and I love the colouring, tearing and sticking photo – my daughter loves wearing her wellies inside too!! :)

  • Fantastic- your photos, your ideas and your advice! I will certainly be making more effort with my little girl from now on, I want her to be happy and these ways look fun :)
    Thank you.

  • Thank you thank you thank you so so much. I am a childminder (have been for 8 years) and in childcare 30 years next year. I have been feeling bogged down by the paperwork etc and had lost the reason why I work with children so much so that I was contemplating giving up. This post has given me some of my motivation back. Why – the pictures say it all. Your children are having so much fun and are so lucky to have a wonderful Mummy like you xxxx

  • Kate, that is one of the most wonderful comments I have ever had on this blog and it really moves me that I may have helped keep you in childminding! I know how awful the paperwork is, but I think one early years professional who knows the value and importance of letting children play is worth 1000 who just don’t get it yet. Please stay on and keep up the brilliant work with your kiddies!

  • this is such a great, great, great blog post. very inspirational. thank you.

  • wonderful post – saw it liked on facebook xxx

  • RJM

    Really lovely blog. Great pictures and thoughts. Thank you for sharing!

  • Anonymous

    I love it! You just gave my brain the inspiration I have been lacking since my little one was born to use my imagination once again!

  • Thank you for helping me refocus my attention to what matters most! Play!

    I posted a link to this post on my new blog… you have inspired me to write about my explorations with my baby boy.

  • Anonymous

    Love, Love, love this post. I wish I could put my thoughts on child play as well as you did. Very inspiring. Very true. Thank you.

  • I love you blog. I find fun es each time I search. The kids I nanny will have fun doing many of the activities.
    thanks for so many wonderful ideas.

  • Coady

    I love your blog, i’m new to this whole “blog” thing but really am enjoying reading through yours. I’m a new mother and the “getting messy” thing is one thing that is always on my mind, but I’m just starting to let go and remembering how much fun I had as a child when I was getting “messy” and having FUN!!!! I live in a city where I have no family and only one friend with a baby and find it hard to get things done when my son always wants to be with me so sometimes he does watch tv (baby einstine) usually and I feel ok about that because the other 85% of the time we are at the park, playing with fun things and having good quality bonding time :) I really like the discovery boxes, thanks for all your great tips and sharing with us!

  • Anna

    Wow I am so excited to have found your blog site anna! I love that you have put so much time into creating such a wonderful tool for so many other mothers out there! I am a childcare teacher as well as a mother and have been searching for some new inspiration which i have found here on your blog! I cant wait to try out all these new ideas with my children! Your blog has also reminded me of the importance of thinking from a childs perspective and how important all these wonderful experiences are! Thanks for sharing,
    Anna.

  • Thank you so much for your comments ladies- I feel honoured by your feedback. :-)

  • Naomi Alexander

    I absolutely love your website, your ideas, creativity, imagination, dedication and generosity of spirit in sharing all this. I feel so inspired to create all these opportunities for my 17 month old son. Am officially a huge fan! Thank you, thank you, thank you :-)

  • KJ

    What an inspiring post, just what you need when you start to run out of ideas! Thank you for giving me the inspiration to get a few more activities on the go!! :)

  • Truly beautiful – thoughts and pictures! Loved reading every word of it! Thank you for sharing such a wonderful post. I agree with you – about the enormity of this topic. And yet, you’ve written so well – doing full justice!
    Sharing on my blog FB page now…

  • What great thoughts that are supported by photos! I’ll be sharing this one for sure. Thanks for the time I know that you put into this.

  • This is a great reminder of what we should be doing with our kids!!!
    Put down the remote, ipad, xbox etc. and play a little…make that a LOT!

  • Anonymous

    Wow – so inspired! We have an outdoor activity table and never thought of putting shaving foam in it! (only water – how unimaginative)!That’s something for tomorrow ;) Thank you for your great posts,so many fantastic ideas i know my little girl will love. Will be following your blog from now on

  • Just put your page up as a link on our facebook page. You have a lovely blog.
    Check ours out too at http://www.adventurewalks.blogspot.com as we create story led, imaginative walks for children.
    Becky and Clare, Adventure Walks books.

  • Annie

    This site is AMAZING! Although I grew up in a house where imagination and play ruled, I still find it hard to come up with my own unique ideas to entertain and encourage my children. This site makes it so easy, and I love that you have explained how important play is, something we need to be reminded of now and again :)

  • I love this post! I am writing a paper about the importance of play for one of my teacher education classes. This provided me with lots of inspiration! Thank you for sharing your beliefs about play (because that’s kind of what they are!).

  • Anonymous

    Your pictures are awesome and inspiring, makes me want to go home and play with my child and take lots of pictures!!!

  • Anonymous

    Thank you for the explanation and inspiration. Now my daughter’s left and right brain connections will be that much stronger. Can’t wait to start the afternoon fun!

  • wow – thanks Anna! This has really inspired me to play more with my daughter and given me new ideas and also encouraged me to not worry about the mess! thank you for the time you’ve put into this post, I shall be returning to it! Hannah x

  • Seeing such beautiful illustrative pictures that really demonstrate the varieties of play is enchanting and so effective in shedding light on the different kinds. Thank you!

  • Anonymous

    I have just come across your site, and wanted to say thank you for such a thoughtful, inspiring read! This is such a heart-felt piece and you have already provided me with so many ideas to enhance my two little ones’ daily lives. You have a truly wonderful site here and I am excited to read through all your posts! Thank you again for sharing your lovely ideas. With very best wishes, Jo x

  • Hi Anna,

    This is soooo inspiring…I been wanting to write something on play for my blog but I dont think I can top that, so if its ok please can I repost this on my blog?

    Thanks in advance

    Asma (also a primary/early years teacherw)
    http://www.mothersnotebook.com

  • What a beautiful post, and you have such beautiful children!
    I totally agree with your view on the importance of play. I’ve tried to raise my children with an emphasis on that and not over schedule their week. They’re 11 and 9 now and very imaginative, creative and happy.
    You might like this blog post along the same lines – it’s like reading a picture book in blog form.
    http://blog.giftsoc.com/2012/06/give-your-children-the-gift-of-nature

  • Thank you! Just what I need to get motivated and show my girls a good time! I think tomorrow will be a muffin tray with walnuts for my 9 month old, and shaving cream in a big tub for my 2 year old. Should be fun additions to our day ;)

  • You are a wonderful mom. What an inspirational post! I’m going to share this with my Facebook followers. Thanks for reminding me that we only grow old when we stop playing.

  • You have said it all and so well. I agree with everything you talk about and sometimes you need to read it to believe it. What a breath of fresh air and imaginative play isn’t given enough thought but it is so important, thank you!

  • Kat

    Thanks, fantastic post!

  • Anonymous

    Love this! Have you ever come across Charlotte Mason before…educationalist from early 1900s in the UK?

    Bridget

  • I have been a regular on this site for a while now but have never come across this post before. It says so many of the things I have felt but not had the knowledge to back up, Now I know the why’s and wherefores behind the play I do at home, brilliant peice. Thank you

  • Anonymous

    Hi, I whole heartedly agree with everything you say in this article!! Sometimes when the house is covered in paint/sand/muddy footprints and there’s a cardboard den in the living room, and the floor is a sea of construction material and I’m standing in pritt stick, I feel a bit guilty about not being a good housewife, and not keeping my home in enough order. This really reinforces my belief that play is where my priorities ought to be when my children are small. Thank you.

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