Kids in tiger and lion costumes

Has the value of play been forgotten? Making sure that young children are "ready" for kindergarten has become a widespread and high priority issue. Children barely (or not quite) out of diapers are being taught to sing the alphabet and recognize letters and numbers. How does this early academic immersion affect a child's total development? Some educators feel the importance of play is being overlooked in the race for academic competence; they believe that play, in fact, actually strengthens the cognitive, social and motor skills that are the foundations of classroom learning. Anita Gurian, Ph. D., Clinical Assistant Professor at the NYU Child Study Center, answers some frequently asked questions about play.

Why is play important for the young child?
The child at play is a child at work. She's not merely having a pleasant time; she's busy learning lots of things. She's finding out how her world works and where she fits in. Play helps a child scale things down to a manageable size. The years from 2 to 6 are often called "the play years" since play thrives during these years and contributes to many aspects of a child's development.

How does make-believe or imaginative play relate to the child's everyday life?
Make-believe play generally emerges at the end of the second year. Children act out everyday and imaginary activities, so their play reflects their lives in miniature. They imitate adults and act out the situations and the relationships they see around them—in play they can assume the roles of parents, bus drivers, store keepers, even television characters. As children try out different roles, they experience situations from different points of view and explore different ways of mastering situations. Play can help a child deal with life changes such as the birth of new baby, moving, parental separation and other life events.

Does play help emotional development?
Play can be a safe way of expressing emotions that are too complex to verbalize. In play a child creates a magical world in which he can be anyone and do anything. He may safely act out emotions and release impulses that would not be acceptable in daily life, such as playing an aggressive game involving punching, hitting, or tearing apart a structure. A child may reenact scenes involving disappointment, fear, anger or jealousy. In this way children gradually learn to acknowledge and cope with their own feelings and feelings of others. Play can also help a child cope with fears. The child is able to reverse roles; in his play he can master scary situations by being brave and fearless. He may become a doctor sewing up a cut; a hunter capturing a lion; a runner winning a race; there's no end to the possibilities.

How does play prepare a child for learning?
Play and learning are intertwined. Play leads to discovery and to reasoning. In addition to conventional toys, children are constantly experimenting with whatever is available; they construct things, tear them down, compare objects and use them in different ways. As they experiment they learn a lot about math, words, symbols and science (what floats, what sinks; heavy/light; large/small; in/out; backwards/forwards; relative sizes).

By means of play children also learn important physical skills that are basic to learning. They gain muscle control, balance and coordination. Play enhances gross motor skills such as jumping a rope and kicking a ball, and fine motor skills such as cutting and coloring. Children gradually learn to identify the activities they enjoy and excel in—from music to science to sports to art.

Does play help children get along with others?
As peers become important, children learn to cooperate in many ways: working towards a shared goal (building a fort, having a tea party, running a show) trading toys, turn taking, having conversations, sharing, and taking turns. They learn to understand the point of view of another person and to resolve conflicts by negotiation and compromise.

How can parents encourage their children's play?
Parents should create an environment conducive to play by making space and props and most of all, uninterrupted time, available. For preschool children, making time for play is even more critical than making time for structured classes in reading, math, ballet etc. Play reflects the predicaments of childhood and can give parents insights in to what their child is thinking, worrying about, and wishing for.