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Why Play?

Along with a need for safe and supervised care, many parents enroll their child in a daycare or preschool program with the expectation that they will be learning academic skills that will prepare them for future school success. Because many of the parent's early school or care experiences were rigid school environments comprised of worksheets and teacher-directed activities, they are often dismayed to find their children playing for most of the day.

After all, isn't play just an idle waste of time? Surprisingly, child psychologists and educational specialists will answer this with a resounding "No". Many early childhood teachers and daycare providers are now recognizing what they have found in numerous research studies: Play is the most effective and powerful way for young children to learn. Often it is said that play is the work of childhood, the primary method for them to learn about themselves, others and their world.

Some scientists have found evidence that play can sculpt the brain and build denser webs of neural connections. When we play we literally exercise our brain cells. The nerve cells in the brain actually thicken and grow as we learn.

"Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world."
-- Albert Einstein


What is play?

We do not have to be taught to play. It is a universal activity, although it takes many forms. Indeed, children of every culture engage in play. It is true free play that is the most influential in learning and development. This form of play has specific characteristics.

Play is:

child-directed and chosen

"Knowledge arises neither from objects nor the child, but from interactions between the child and those objects."
-- Jean Piaget

What does play teach?

Play is the best way for young children to learn the concepts, skills, and tasks needed to set a solid foundation for later school and life success. Most daycare and childcare programs focus on developing the whole child: socially, emotionally, physically and intellectually. Many common play activities meet these goals.


Finger plays language development, fine-motor skills, counting, coordination, and self-esteem
Circle games large motor skills, creativity, cooperation, and spatial concepts
Pretend play social skills (cooperation, turn-taking and sharing) language and vocabulary development
imagination, emotional expression
Puzzles problem solving, abstract reasoning, shapes, and spatial concepts
Block building a foundation for more advanced science comprehension including gravity, stability, weight, and balance
Sand-box play measuring, problem solving, and fine motor skills
Cooking math skills (counting and measuring,) nutrition and science concepts (prediction,
cause and effect)
Coloring/Painting creativity, emotional expression, symbolic representation, fine-motor skills

Joni Levine



by Linda Shekerdemian

With ever increasing pressures on children today, such as information overload from the internet, over-stimulating video games and too many scheduled extra curricular activities, it is important to take the time to examine how we can best support children through the joys and challenges of growing up. How as a community can we become more aware of the needs of children and what can we do to enhance and support children's emotional well being and future mental health? I believe one simple answer to this question, that we may have lost sight of, is to provide children with more opportunities for expressive free play and to recognize the important healing aspects of play.

Play is the language of children. It is their most natural activity. Through play children express themselves, explore their world and learn. Even though play looks as if it is only amusing, fun and joyful, it is an extremely important activity for children, and even for adults. We find ways of playing throughout our lives whether it is through art, sewing, cooking, building projects, kayaking or rollerblading. Play is an activity that benefits us in so many ways and contributes to our overall sense of well being.

Through pretend or fantasy play children are able to set up and resolve emotional conflicts, e.g. how they will share their mom with a new baby. They also learn about the world in a safe, predictable environment that they have control over. They do this by acting out important scenarios, these might include, visiting the doctor or hospital, being the mommy or daddy, or being the police officer. Play gives children the opportunity to try out many different roles and develop their social skills.

For parents, observing a child’s pretend play provides a window into their world. Feelings and thoughts that might be too difficult or painful for them to communicate become accessible. This is especially useful when children are in the early stages of speech and language development.

Play can also be an important therapeutic intervention for children experiencing adjustment problems. Play therapy offers children a safe, natural and non-intrusive method of recovering from distressing life events, such as a divorce in the family, and healing from major trauma. It can be a useful intervention for children exhibiting a range of problematic behaviors such as regression, anxiety, extreme anger, aggression and fears. Play therapy can also help children who are experiencing difficulties at school due to learning disabilities. In play therapy children can have dolls, animals or other figures relive their problematic experiences and gain a sense of mastery over the world that, in real life, is difficult for them to do. In the playroom children can create a world that they can understand, overcome frightening feelings and symbolically triumph over upsets and traumas, e.g. having superhero figures defeat the "bad guys". An expressive emotional outlet and stable therapeutic relationship, such as play therapy provides, greatly enhances a child’s emotional health, self esteem as well as increasing their ability to experience success at school and form positive relationships.

I would like to share a personal experience that illustrates the power of play and how anyone can help a child by providing them with an expressive outlet through play. Last December I had the opportunity to witness the powerful impact of play with a very young child. I was not acting in the capacity of play therapist but just as a friend sharing some important toys. Friends of mine from up north in B.C. had been medevaced from Smithers to Children’s Hospital in Vancouver. Their little boy, Bobby (not his real name), was in the midst of a hemolytic crisis, with his hemoglobin levels dropping dangerously low. Bewildered and overwhelmed they set up camp in their little hospital room. Over the course of their 4-day stay at Children’s and prior to being transported to Vancouver, Bobby was subjected to many painful tests and procedures. His parents were concerned that he was being repeatedly traumatized and was becoming fearful of all strangers, believing that anyone he didn’t know was going to hurt him. Only nursing and being in constant physical contact with his mom or dad provided him any comfort.

During my visit on his second day in the hospital I brought along my play medical kit. After assuring Bobby that I had come to visit and play with him and was not going to hurt him I took the medical kit out and spread its contents out on the bed where Bobby and his mom were sitting. I started out talking to Bobby’s teddy bear and explaining that he (the bear) was going to have a few medical procedures. I first started by taking his blood pressure, assuring him that this would not hurt him. Bobby watched very attentively and then repeated what I had done, taking teddy’s blood pressure himself. We then listened to teddy’s heart. Bobby’s mom joined in the play as we took her blood pressure and listened to her heart. Then Bobby began to attempt to listen to his own heart and take his own blood pressure, we helped him through each of these activities. Once Bobby seemed relaxed and engaged in this play I took out the play syringe and talked to teddy and Bobby about having a blood test and that this would hurt for a short time. Bobby was immediately drawn to the syringe and used it to take teddy’s blood and then began poking his own arm with it. He then took the syringe and began pushing it near where he had an I.V. needle bandaged around his hand. He looked at me and pointed to his I.V. again then started to cry as he crumpled forward on the bed. He then sat up and continued his play. I repeated in words what Bobby had shown us through his play and thanked him for telling us that having the I.V. needle put in had hurt him.

This was a profound and deeply touching experience for both Bobby’s mother and myself. Bobby at 17months old, with no verbal language, was able through play to express and communicate to us his feelings of hurt, fear and sadness. The toys had acted as his words.

Did having this outlet lessen the impact of the trauma this young child experienced? We can't know for sure what the long-term impact of such an experience will be for this particular child but providing him with a means to express his distress through play seemed to empower him and make his world a little less confusing. I hope this story of little Bobby illustrates how we can all use play to help children through difficult times, to enrich their every day lives and enhance their sense of well being.


FAMILIES TODAY By T. Berry Brazelton
Play, not reading, should be focus of early childhood. In the pressured world of families today, many parents of preschool-aged children wonder when to begin teaching them to read and write. My response: Don’t, until they demand it. It’s all too easy to overdo teaching letters and numbers. To me, the timing is not as important as the child’s own desire to learn. It’s so easy to push early learning on a child who is compliant at this age. But it does more harm than good. We’ve known this for some time. In the 1960s there was a movement toward early teaching, led by a professor at Yale, Dr. O.K. Moore. He felt that if children could be taught early to read and write, they’d be more competitive when they entered school. This was true – up to a point. In order to please adults around them, 3-year-olds could learn to read and write successfully. They didn’t seem to know what they were reading, but they could do it. When they reached first grade, they were ahead of other children, and they received the adult approval they needed. But many of these “precocious” children hadn’t learned the skills they needed to get along with peers. They were adult oriented. In the second and third grades, these children began to slip. The rote learning processes they’d used to learn earlier didn’t generalize to the more complex learning they needed in later grades. They seemed stuck with more primitive learning methods. These unfortunate children then hit bottom. They were not the stars any longer, other children had deserted them and adults were disappointed. This left them feeling sad and deserted. Despite this and later evidence that such precocious early training is costly, many parents are still eager to give children a “head start.” Books and programs promising ways to “teach your baby to read” continue to proliferate. I strongly urge parents to stay away from them. A child learns best who learns for herself, not others. Play is her way of learning. When she learns by play, she tries different techniques to find out what works for her. When she can’t achieve something she is interested in doing,she gets frustrated. Frustration drives her to find out how to do it.
When she finally does it, she gets a wonderful feeling: “I did it myself!”, that is the most rewarding fuel for future learning there is. Ambitious parents must learn to watch the child, to stay in the background and let her learn for herself. It’s difficult but necessary. A parent’s job is to admire, approve and even encourage, but not to push. Choosing a preschool can be done with the same philosophy in mind. Play is the powerful way
children learn their most important tasks at this
age – how to play with other children, how to
handle other adults and how to learn about
themselves as social people. The tasks of this
age group are enormous:
 experiencing socialization
 learning about aggression
 learning how to identify with everyone around them
Learning about oneself and about one’s peers is
the best learning that parents can provide in
these preschool years. The one thing I’d like for all the children to feel about themselves at this age is, “I’m important! Everyone likes me!”
Reprinted with permission
STAR BULLETIN – Tuesday, November 10, 1998



Take It Outside!


by Rae Pica



Think back to your own childhood.  Chances are, some of your fondest memories are of outdoor activities and places.  Perhaps you had a favorite climbing tree of secret hiding place.  Maybe you remember jumping rope or learning to turn cartwheels with your best friend or playing fetch with the family dog.  Do you recall the smell of lilacs, the feel of the sun on the first day warm enough to take off your jacket, or the taste of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich eaten on a blanket in the park?  Did you enjoy lying on your back and finding creatures in the clouds?


Now ask yourself: Don’t I want my child to have similar memories?  Wonderful, happy memories?


Unfortunately, a great many of today’s children will grow up without such fond memories because today’s children spend far less time outdoors than did previous generations.  According to William Doherty of the University of Minnesota, over the last twenty years there has been a 25 percent decline in the time children spend playing and a 50 percent decline in time spent in unstructured outdoor activities.


It is unfortunate because when children spend most of their time indoors, they’ll not just be missing out on memories but also on everything else the outdoors has to offer them.


To begin with, the outdoors is the best place for young children to practice and master emerging physical skills and to experience the pure joy of movement.  It’s also the place where they’re likely to burn the most calories, which is absolutely necessary in the fight against obesity. 


Also, the outside light stimulates the pineal gland, which is the part of the brain that helps regulate the biological clock, is vital to the immune system, and simply makes us feel happier.  Outside light triggers the synthesis of vitamin D.  And a number of studies have demonstrated that it increases academic learning and productivity!


Young children learn much through their senses, and the outdoors is a virtual wonderland for the senses.  There are different and incredible things for the children to see (insects, clouds, and shadows), to hear (traffic sounds, birdsongs, leaves rustling in the wind), to smell (flowers and the rain-soaked ground), to touch (a fuzzy caterpillar or the bark of a tree), and even to taste (newly fallen snow, a raindrop, or a freshly picked blueberry).  Children who spend much of their time acquiring experiences through television, computers, and even books are using only two senses (hearing and sight), and this can seriously affect their perceptual abilities.  Additionally, much of this learning, which falls under the content area of science, can’t be acquired indoors.  Nor can children who spend most of their time indoors be expected to learn to care for the environment.


Outside, children are more likely to invent games.  As they do, they’re able to express themselves and learn about the world in their own way.  They feel safe and in control, which promotes autonomy, decision making, and organizational skills.  Inventing rules for games promotes an understanding of why rules are necessary.  And although children are just playing to have fun, they learn:

  • communication skills and vocabulary, as they invent, modify, and enforce rules;
  • number relationships, as they keep score and count; and
  • social skills, as they learn to play together.


Then, too, there’s the aesthetic value of the outdoors.  Because the natural world is filled with amazing sights, sounds, and textures, it’s the perfect resource for the development of aesthetics in young children.  Since aesthetic awareness means a heightened sensitivity to the beauty around us, it’s something that can serve children well at those times when, as adolescents and adults, the world seems less than beautiful.


Further, Mary Rivkin, author of The Great Outdoors: Restoring Children’s Right to Play Outside, tells us there is on very basic reason that children need to experience being outside: human evolved in the outdoors.  They thus have a link with nature that can’t be replaced – in fact, will be atrophied – by technology.  She asks if, lacking intimate association with nature, we can still be human!


Children learn their values from the important adults in their lives.  When they’re not encouraged to go outdoors, they learn sedentary habits not easily changed and, more unfortunately, that the outdoor environment is of little significance.

Rae is a children's physical activity specialist and the author of several books, including Your Active Child: How to Boost Physical, Emotional, and Cognitive Development through Age-Appropriate Activity (McGraw-Hill, 2003).  You can e-mail her at raepica@movingandlearning.com.



Educational Purpose of Play

Have you ever been curious about what educational learning is going
On when your child plays with blocks, cooks up a batch of play-dough,
Dress up and play Mommy and Daddy, paint a picture with just lots of
Beautiful colors but maybe no identifiable objects, pour water from
Here to there for an hour, place puzzle pieces carefully or colored pegs In random order, or just any kind of play?

Knowledge is not something that is given to children as though they
Were empty vessels to be filled? Children acquire knowledge about
The physical and social worlds in which they live through playful
Interaction with objects and people. Children do not need to be forced
To learn; they are motivated by their own desire to make sense of their
World (taking from Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children From Birth Through Age Eight, NAEYC, 1990).

Following is a summary of some of the serious learning that is Happening when it might appear to us adults that our children are "Just playing".

Blocks and other building materials encourage the expression of The child's creative resources as an art medium. These materials Help the child reproduce places and experiences in his/her own world. They also help develop eye-hand coordination and motor control, as
Well as special relationships. They assist in discovering and working Out mathematical and scientific findings for the child.

Cooking activities build autonomy and understanding of the adult world. These activities aid in the development of small motor coordination and Introduce pre-math and reading readiness.

Props, costumes and puppets encourage dramatic play. Through Dramatic play the child has the opportunity to try various roles he/she
Sees in our ever-changing world. It allows for social interaction among Peers and provides opportunities for verbal communication.

Opportunities to play with plants, animals and other things in the natural environment aid the child in his/her growing understanding of the world of nature.

Field trips aid in building and clarifying concepts in the world of work, people and nature.

Art/Craft experiences include painting, cutting, pasting, and molding, drawing and much more. These activities provide a way for the child to express feelings and ideas. They help develop fine motor control and skills in handling tools. They also provide endless opportunities to choose and create. The process of the art activity is far more important than the product!

Table games, puzzles and other manipulative materials encourage eye-hand coordination and the seeing of similarities and differences in color, Size and shape. They also help develop visual memory, practice in Classification and individual activity and self-reliance.

Story time is a time for quiet and relaxation. It is a time used to broaden The child's knowledge of his/her world and to aid in the understanding of his/her feelings and the feelings of others. Story time helps promote recall, classification and differentiation, the enjoyment of books, awareness of left to right progression and the proper use and care of books.

Water and sand play provides the opportunity to develop small muscle coordination and eye-hand coordination. It also provides for cooperation and stimulates verbal communication. It is an activity, which allows for the relaxation of tension.

Just Playing

When I'm building in the block room,
Please dont' say I'm "just playing."
For, you see, I'm learning as I play.
About balances and shapes.

When I'm getting all dressed up,
Setting the table, caring for the babies,
Don't get the idea I'm "just playing."
For, you see, I'm learning as I play.
I may be a mother or a father someday.

When you see me up to my elbows in paint,
Or standing at an easel, or molding and shaping clay,
Please don't let me hear you say "he's just playing."
For, you see, I'm learning as I play.
I'm expressing myself and being creative.
I may be an artist or an inventor someday.

When you see me sitting in a chair
"Reading" to an imaginary audience,
Please don't laugh and think I'm "just playing."
For, you see, I'm learning as I play.
I may be a teacher someday.

When you see me combing the bushes for bugs,
Or packing my pockets with choice things I find,
Don't pass it off as "just playing."
For, you see, I'm learning as I play.
I may be a scientist someday.

When you see me engrossed in a puzzle,
Or some "plaything" at my school, (daycare)
Please don't feel the time is wasted in "play"
For you see, I'm learning as I play.
I'm learning to solve problems and concentrate.
I may in business someday.

When you see me cooking or tasting foods,
Please don't think that because I enjoy it, it is just "play."
I'm learning to follow directions and see differences.
I may be a chef someday.

When you see me learning to skip, hop, run and move my body,
Please don't say I'm "just playing."
For you see, I'm learning as I play.
I'm learning how my body works.
I may be a doctor, nurse or athlete someday.

When you ask me what I've done at school (daycare) today,
And I say, "I played."
Please don't misunderstand me.
For, you see, I'm learning as I play.
I'm learning to enjoy and be successful in work.
I'm preparing for tomorrow.
Today, I'm a child and my work is play.

~by Anita Wadley from Chicken Soup for the Unsinkable Soul





Here's some soothing medicine for stressed-out parents and overscheduled kids: The American Academy of Pediatrics says what children really need for healthy development is more good, old- fashioned playtime.

Many parents load their children's schedules with get-smart videos, enrichment activities and lots of classes in a drive to help them excel. The efforts often begin as early as infancy.
Spontaneous, free play _ whether it's chasing butterflies, playing with "true toys" like blocks and dolls, or just romping on the floor with mom and dad _ often is sacrificed in the shuffle, a new academy report says.
Jennifer Gervasio has a 5-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter involved in preschool three mornings weekly, plus T-ball and ballet for each one day a week. That's a light schedule compared to her kids' friends, and Gervasio said her son in particular has trouble finding buddies who are free to come over and just play.
"There's just such a huge variety of things you can do for your kids if you have the resources, you almost feel why not," said Gervasio, of Wilmette, Ill. "There is a part of me that would worry if I don't sign my son up for some of these things, will he not be on par with the other kids."
For now, she says, she resists the pressure, instead allowing her kids plenty of time for looking for bugs, romping at the beach and other play activities they love to do.
"I truly believe that they're better off when they can just do their own thing," Gervasio said.
Numerous studies have shown that unstructured play has many benefits. It can help children become creative, discover their own passions, develop problem-solving skills, relate to others and adjust to school settings, the academy report says.
"Perhaps above all, play is a simple joy that is a cherished part of childhood," says the report, prepared by two academy committees for release Monday at the group's annual meeting in Atlanta.
A lack of spontaneous playtime can create stress for children and parents alike. If it occurs because young children are plopped in front of get-smart videos or older children lose school recess time, it can increase risks for obesity. It may even contribute to depression for many children, the report says.
Social pressures and marketing pitches about creating "super children" contribute to a lack of playtime for many families. But so does living in low-income, violence-prone neighborhoods where safe places to play are scarce, the report says.
It says enrichment tools and organized activities can be beneficial but should not be viewed as a requirement for creating successful children. Above all, they must be balanced with plenty of free play time, the report says.
"In the current environment where so many parents feel pressure to be super parents, I believe this message is an important one," said Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg, the report's lead author and a pediatrician at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.
Noted pediatrician and author Dr. T. Berry Brazelton praised the academy's report.
"I hope it will have some effect," Brazelton said. Children overscheduled with structured activities "are missing the chance they have to dream, to fantasize, to make their own world work the way they want it. That to me is a very important part of childhood," Brazelton said.