A Time and a Place for Play


Part 1: Play done right in the garden of our children’s minds…

Why Play?  

School’s out for the summer, hooray! What will we do with ourselves with all our spare time? Why play, of course. Livin’ is easy, in the summertime. My daughter and I are making the most of our time to play: swimming, bike riding, library-ing, reading, dirt digging, game playing, craft-making, pottery painting, traveling to see family, visiting with friends and just plain hanging around are all part-n-parcel for summer, for us. Livin’ is busy in the summertime!

What does “play time” mean to you? Or rather, what do you think of, when you think about “play”? Does your inner reverie offer up the sounds of laughter and images of eyes crinkled at the corners, sparkling with delight? Do you think about games and puzzles, or children sneaking around engaged in make-believe bank heists, mystery investigations, tea-parties, and dog-grooming? Do you think of wresting, tag, tug-of-war, and kick-the-can? Sure you do. We don’t need to be told what play is; we know it when we see it. Duh.

Speaking of “duh,” my students often smirk when we get to the chapter on Play. A deceptively simple definition — a pleasurable activity one chooses to engage in, often involving aspects of fantasy – masks a complex kind of engagement that feeds our psyches in very important ways. Time for play enables growth in the coordination of key social, cognitive, and emotional skills that developing children need in order to grow up to become the competent successful mature beings we desire them to become. Indeed, play time is not just time to relax and let things go, but it’s also a state of mind and an opportunity for growth. It’s the state of mind and the growth that play stimulates that I aim to discuss further here, in this post.

Why discuss such a thing here? Because time for play is being called to question. As Vivian Paley eloquently reports in her 2004 book A Child’s Work: The Importance of Fantasy Play, we are in the midst of sea-change in our attitudes about play. Early childhood, once an age range where free fantasy play ruled the day, is slowly transforming itself into a time for early academic engagement. What once was expected of kindergartners is now expected of preschoolers and what was once expected of first graders is now expected of kindergartners, and so on. The national agenda for educational attainments for all is leading us to start formal schooling earlier and earlier. Indeed, in in some areas of the US, recess has been pulled from the daily schedule (indeed, the city of Chicago went without recess for 30 years, and only recently revisited the idea) and schools are being built without playgrounds. Many believe that exchanging recess for increased seat and instructional time will “fix” our “broken” educational system.

For readers interested in the historical perspective of the shift away from play and towards early academic engagement, I encourage you to read Vivian Paley’s book. In the paragraphs that follow here, what I discuss further is the cost of such a shift, in terms of opportunities lost. What we’ve(the psychological community, that is) learned over and over again, when it comes to understanding the human psyche, is that sometimes things aren’t quite as they appear. As well, sometimes well designed research yields counter-intuitive findings about the nature of human nature. When it comes to play, that is, play done right, time isn’t squandered. Rather, play enables growth that translates into better self-regulation and greater academic achievement. Play time is serious business and something that needs protection.

“Life Lessons” as “Child’s Play”

A “saying” students of mine hear over and over again is that “there is always more than one cause to any given effect.” Play done right does more than entertain: through play cognitive skills, social skills, and emotion-regulation skills all grow. Said another way:

  • Focused school-work isn’t the only thing that boosts cognitive development; play done right can too.
  • Discipline from parents, caregivers, or teachers isn’t the only way to teach children right from wrong: play done right can too.
  • Brain-development isn’t the only thing that causes advances in emotion regulation; play done right can too.

Note the emphasis on “play done right.” Not all leisure activities nor opportunities for play are created equal. Not only can time indeed be wasted in the name of play, but more importantly, things can go wrong with play too. The emphasis in this post is on what happens when play time is “done right” but I will end with some cautions on what can happen when things backfire too.

Play takes many forms and the way in which children engage changes with age. As children grow cognitively, so too does the way they play. The study of play is really a study of “social cognition” – thinking that not only arises from social experience but that is shaped by experience itself (“self-concept” being a great exemplar of social cognition, as is moral reasoning). Thinking and playing are inextricably linked: social interactions are constrained by children’s cognitive status, yet, healthy social interactions promote cognitive growth.

Considering play as a state of mind considerably broadens the array of activities that may constitute play, indeed just about anything can fit the bill, just so long as you are feeling free to enjoy yourself and you are doing it for no other reason than that. The sense of free-will (also called volition or autonomy) that comes from opportunities to choose what you do contributes to your overall sense of well-being, a necessary component of psychological health. Thus whether sensori-motor, make-believe, solitary, discovery-oriented, realistically based, or rough-and-tumble, an activity is “playful” if you are doing it of your own volition, to enjoy yourself. Despite the sense of “free-will” involved in play though, you are learning from it and what you do while playing is connected to other aspects of your being.

Play and social, cognitive, and emotional development

In the next several paragraphs, I offer you a synopsis of what play looks like, and what’s learned from it, across four age groups: Infancy & Toddlerhood, Early Childhood, Middle Childhood, and Adolescence. By using these groupings I do not mean to imply that play and growth are qualitatively different in each age range though, as that is not at all the case. Rather, developmentally, the same skills gradually develop with age and increasing experience in what can be described as a continuous pattern. That is, on the surface, play does look different as children age, yet what’s learned is not.

1. Infancy & Toddlerhood: In infancy, play is rooted in sensori-motor interactions. Through such activity, the foundations for cognition, self-regulation, and socialization are established.

You know sensori-motor play when you see – or hear – it: manipulating textured toys; building towers only to knock them down over and over; shaking, rattling, gumming, and throwing musical instruments; digging in the dirt or sand; and so on. Little ones prefer activities that excite the senses and you can see it in their eyes when they are engrossed – they are having fun!

Cognitively, as infants and toddlers play with the world around them, schemas form, reflecting the way in which their actions influence the environment. Eventually, this process enables the creation of internal representations in their minds reflecting objects and experiences (i.e., knowledge, categories, memories). Sensori-motor play helps challenge their nascent “working memory skills” too (also known as “executive function”), by keeping sights and sounds in mind and by mimicking the activities of playmates. This kind of exploration teaches them how to expect outcomes.

Socially, through sensori-motor play infants and toddlers get engaged when others “shake things up” with them thereby establishing social-emotional bonds too. Toddlers watch each other and mimic their play-partner’s actions, a process that establishes the foundations of sociability.

Even though at this age little ones often play alone or in parallel (sharing space and toys, but playing in their own way), much is learned. By exploring the environment with their senses, infants and toddlers learn nascent self-regulation by coming to understand that they can do things on purpose and that they can, indeed, make things happen all by themselves. As such, in infancy and toddlerhood, through play, the foundations for cognition, self-regulation, and socializations are established.

2. Early childhood: In early childhood, play becomes socio-dramatic in nature and such engagement fosters further advances in cognitive, social, and self-regulatory abilities. (Vivian Payley’s book, mentioned earlier, is rich with illustrations of such fantasy play)

Socio-dramatic play is more commonly called “make-believe” or fantasy play. Preschooler’s M.O. is “pretend,” and children ranging in age from 3 – 6 tend to transform much of what they do into something otherworldly. Whereas no one really questions the sensori-motor play seen in the first two years of life, once children enter into preschool, questions do indeed arise about the degree to which children should be allowed to suspend reality and what should happen while in the throws of make-believe. Should limits be placed on the little gardens in their minds? What’s happening “in mind” when preschooler’s pretend to be something they are not, or pretend to do something they are not supposed to do in real life?

Cognitively, whether engaged in make-believe or not, preschoolers work with their established schemas and explore how things go together. In class when I discuss this, I like to refer to preschoolers “mad scientists,” in that as they go about their business, they follow a template for logical “if-then” reasoning, but the way they fill in the blanks is often fantastic rather than realistic. But this is OK. By going through the motions of logic, they acquire another key ingredient for more mature thinking – a script for mapping out causality.

Socially, preschooler’s “make believe” to practice alternate ways of being and play around with new ideas about what the world could be like if things were different. When you watch closely, you see many themes in their play as they mirror what they see around them. Not only do preschooler’s “play” at mimicking gender roles, sibling interactions, playground antics, and the like, but they also act out forbidden behaviors. When make-believe takes a dark turn (i.e., bad-guy games, rule-breaking, general naughtiness, argumentation) parents often want to intervene (“play nice, kids!”) – I know I did – but developmental scientists and clinicians alike recommend that as long as no one is getting hurt and all understand that it’s play and not real, then you should let kids be (though as I discuss elsewhere, caregivers should keep an ear tuned in, in case things go south). When they act out what’s not right, they demonstrate that they are coming to understand what is right. Recognition of contrasts signifies conceptual understanding.

When immersed in make-believe, preschoolers are building up their ability to self-regulate. Knowing right from wrong and “controlling oneself” need to be practiced, after all. When deeply engaged in a challenging task such as a jigsaw puzzle, you may very well hear a child directing their own behavior, just as they’ve been “taught” by their parents or caregivers: “find the edges first…is this flat?”. Eminent theorist Lev Vygotsky, recognized this “self-talk” as an indicator that children were internalizing the lessons they were learning from others – a necessary step in learning to direct your own behavior. The same is true when preschoolers play together – as they act out and embellish what they experience and see, they are learning to control their behavior and act appropriately.

Similarly, when observing preschooler’s play you are likely so see a reflection of parents’ discipline practices too. It is important to note, though, that what you often observe is not a direct copy of what children experience at home. Rather, preschoolers creatively embellish here too, making what you see more akin to what Alice saw that day that she walked through the “looking glass”(i.e., Through the Looking Glass and what Alice Found There), in that things only resembled reality in the surface, but upon close inspection realty took many surprising twists and turns.

Observational and correlational research suggests that, despite the fact that such imaginative play disconnects from reality, children who do it show better social skills on playgrounds. Quasi-experimentally, in one study I am thinking of right now, when preschoolers were asked, in a lab setting, to pick up a phone and pretend to call someone, some children did so with more realistic inspiration than others (and some didn’t want to do it at all). Turns out children with imaginary playmates were the ones who were most likely to pick up the phone and conduct a realistic pretend conversation. Following from the research outcomes, it appears that by acting out what they are experiencing and taking it to new, fantastic heights preschoolers are learning to create and combine, are learning to be members of the society they live in, and are learning to engage in appropriate social interactions.

As I’ve discussed elsewhere, the “Tools of the Mind” preschool curriculum serves as a fantastic example of “play done right” in the preschool years. The carefully implemented curriculum does have children playing for the better part of the day, but in a semi-structured manner that ensures the appropriate skills are learned. The kids choose what to act-out; the structure comes into play in that they plan their play by writing or drawing out a script (called a play-plan), and they stick to their plan (indeed, sticking with the plan is a key ingredient to this program’s success). When looking at books, they take turns “reading” and “listening,” and so on. Research shows that children who experience this curriculum have a ton of fun, and outpace their age-matched peers in terms of self-regulation and executive functions that guide working memory, pattern matching, and attention focus.

Through play preschool aged children learn to act appropriately by, often times, acting in-appropriately in play. As they immerse themselves in make-believe worlds, they build on their abilities to create, to act as expected, and to be good, likeable, social companions. They build more elaborate schemas of the world around them and establish boundaries between reality and fantasy. As children play make-believe together, they learn to coordinate ideas, engage in give and take, and make compromises too. The “parallel play” seen in toddlerhood gives way to “associative” and “cooperative” thereby laying the foundation for team work. In this way, “play” is often thought of as “the work of preschoolers” in developmental psychology circles.

Think for a moment of what’s lost, developmentally, when children don’t learn in this way. That is, when free play is replaced by formal instruction or adult controlled activities in this age range, things can backfire. To get my students thinking about early educational engagement from an alternative perspective, I use the example little Elizabeth Barrett, whose parents toured the morning news shows a few years ago to show the world that their precocious 17-month-old could read. This amazing little one appears to love language – her parents report that they followed her lead and interests and were amazed at the outcome themselves. At first glance, what we think of when we come across cases like this is: “Wow! Just think what we could do, as a country, if all our young ones could read early? Reading is the gateway to academic growth and achievement! Reading skills are imperative! Let’s start earlier!…” or something like that. But, this is where I stop, pause, and ask students to consider this:

“Just because you can teach a toddler – or preschooler, for that matter – to read, doesn’t mean you should.”

Not only do not all children respond to early intensive instruction like little Elizabeth did, but regardless of their response, there’s an opportunity cost to early emphasis on formal instruction. If young ones are spending time on reading instruction, they aren’t spending time on something else—free play. And that opportunity cost is worth worrying about.

3. Middle Childhood: In middle childhood, play becomes more concrete and grounded in reality, but it is no less important.

The difference between middle and early childhood, in terms of what play looks like, is subtle. The fantastical elements of play slowly slip away, but otherwise what’s learned is much the same. For example, in the early grades, rather than just getting down on all fours when playing “puppy” slightly older children make dog-tails, collars, and leashes so they look more puppy-like. As they do things like this – add in elements of reality to their fantasy play – they continue to grow their knowledge bases, to hone their working memory and self-regulatory skills, and strengthen social bonds. The purpose of play is still the same. Elementary aged kids – when they play – exercise their growing awareness of what it means to live in the world in which they are immersed.

Cognitively, in middle childhood (the elementary years, in the US system) youths’ working memory capacity increases to such an extent that they can do much more with their minds (something I also discuss here; from the ages of 5 – 11, kids capacity increase from a digit span of about 4 to about 6, which is just shy of adult capacity). A digit span difference of that magnitude translates into a shift from being limited to thinking about what’s right there in front of your eyes, to being able to compare what you know to what you see to what you can imagine. In other words, the increase enables abstraction that is otherwise beyond children in the preschool age. Back to play though, whereas elementary aged kids do still enjoy a good bout of make-believe play now and again, they tend to be drawn to more realistic play. While acting out adult roles, rather than imputing super-powers, they exercise more realistic ideals. In this age range, they build up their knowledge base of facts and figures and learn about “conditionals” – that is, they come to understand that “grey areas” exist and that below the surface of things is often a whole other world.

Recognizing that different situations afford different emotions, different contexts yield different opportunities for learning and for play, of course, is the next necessary step to both mature self-conception and mature thinking and reasoning. Socially, their friendships are based on abstract principles of trust and shared interests, rather than solely on energy level or convenience as is seen with younger children. In this age range, their friendships and the things they do together become an integral part of their budding identities. In sum, as children age, play still helps them practice what they’ve learned in both the cognitive and social realms, but it takes on a new purpose too – that of establishing who they want to be in the future.

4. Adolescence: In adolescence, play shifts to center on leisure activities and social interactions that diverge from what’s considered “work.” That is, rather than spending the majority of their time in playful activities, in adolescence youth establish boundaries between work and play – again, a necessary exercise in deepening their understanding of the world around them by studying (or living, really) contrasts.

In adolescence, cognition and self-regulation become more closely intertwined. Cognitively, adolescents are close to adult levels in their thinking, in that their working memory capacity reaches maturity, enabling them to reason abstractly. However, they are still learning to control their impulses and to calibrate their thinking to fit the situations they find themselves. Sometimes, adolescents argue for arguing’s sake, but other times they come across as argumentative because they don’t yet know how to control their powers of rational thought. Indeed, you can’t just tell an adolescent when to stop arguing; this is a lesson that has to be learned in vivo.

Socially, adolescent youth are still learning through play. They act out the roles they see around them, and though their behavior appears quite adult-like, they are still trying out “what it’s like to be” this and that. They mimic the romantic behaviors they see around them, mimic the social roles, and the professional roles that they admire. This kind of “play” helps them establish an identity which enables future planning.  A long standing perspective in developmental science is that some experimentation with different ways of being is a necessary component to healthy identity achievement; an identity-crisis isn’t necessary, but some experimentation is.

In sum, even in adolescence there’s a purpose to play, in terms of affording youth the opportunity to exercise their growing cognitive prowess, self-regulation, and socialization. You can’t tell an adolescent how to be. They need to learn how to be, by being themselves. This can only be done through discovery and through play.

Other Forms of Play: Rough-and-Tumble

The snapshot above centers on make-believe and role-playing. But what about plain old rough-and-tumble play? Is there any value to rough-housing?

Turns out that there is, but rough-housing can also be risky business. In Part 2 of my “Time to Play” essay, I discuss the dos and don’ts of rough-and-tumble. In the interim, I welcome your comments on what’s stated here. How do you play, and what do you think about, as you watch your kids play?

NOTE on citation of this work: This is an original piece of writing, not published elsewhere. If you would like to refer to this work in your own writing or scholarship activities, please cite it appropriately:


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