We often say that young children learn through play. We say that play is children’s work. What does research tell us young children gain through play? A recent article in Psychology Today and results of a 15-year longitudinal study, published in Family Science, provide some answers.
As the Psychology Today article notes, there is more to play than swings, jungle gyms and games of tag on the recess playground. Imaginative play – make-believe and pretend – is important for young children’s healthy development.
“Over the last 75 years a number of theorists and researchers have identified the values of such imaginative play as a vital component to the normal development of a child,” Psychology Today reports. “Systematic research has increasingly demonstrated a series of clear benefits of children’s engagement in pretend games from the ages of about 2½ through ages 6 or 7. Actual studies have demonstrated cognitive benefits such as increases in language usage including subjunctives, future tenses, and adjectives. The important concept of ‘theory of mind,’ an awareness that one’s thoughts may differ from those of other persons and that there are a variety of perspectives of which each of us is capable, is closely related to imaginative play…. Pretend play allows the expression of both positive and negative feelings, and the modulation of affect, the ability to integrate emotion with cognition.”
Other research finds imaginative play helps children develop self-regulation skills, social skills such as problem solving and communication, and cognitive flexibility and creativity.
There are lessons here for both parents and educators. This can mean giving children time and space for free-form play at home, in early education and care settings, and in school. It can mean actively encouraging imaginative play, whether it’s parents reading with and talking with their children or educators using guided play to impart lessons in language, math, science and other subjects.
“What are the sources in children’s environments that promote early and frequent imaginative play?” the article asks. “Research has demonstrated that parents who talk to their children regularly explaining features about nature and social issues, or who read or tell stories at bedtime seem to be most likely to foster pretend play. A school atmosphere in which pretend games are encouraged, or even just tolerated, in the curriculum or recess play of children has also been shown to lead to even greater amounts of imaginativeness and enhanced curiosity, and to learning skills in preschoolers or early school-agers.”
In other research, the study published in Family Science (“Fathers’ and mothers’ cognitive stimulation in early play with toddlers: Predictors of 5th grade reading and math”) is based on longitudinal observations of 229 low-income children in the U.S. Early Head Start Research and Evaluation Project. “Parent-toddler interactions at age 2, observed separately with fathers and mothers, were examined in relation to child outcomes at age 3 and fifth grade,” the abstract states. “Results suggest that fathers’ and mothers’ cognitive stimulation in early play with toddlers both have the potential to make long-term direct and indirect impacts on their children’s academic success.”
Taken together, the research reinforces the importance of developmentally appropriate practice – that includes play — in preparing young children to succeed in school and in aligning early education with the K-12 system.