“Play – it’s natural for young children. We see children engaging in play almost from the moment of birth. They play with their hands; they play with sounds; and they play with almost anything anywhere.
Animals and adult humans engage in play, as well. Play has the unique quality of adding joy to our lives. At times, we engage in play simply to express delight and joy. We do it for fun! For many animals, play allows youngsters to practice hunting and other survival skills. For them, play serves a critical role in developing mastery in such skills as running, balancing, and reading the environment for signs of danger and sources of food.
Children play because that is what they are naturally inclined to do, but play for them is a lot more than filling time. Play helps prepare children for what they may do and experience later in life – for example, what roles they might assume as adults in a family and community (parent, teacher, dancer, firefighter, etc.); how creative they will be in solving problems and expressing ideas; and how well they relate to others and the places where they live. Play during childhood is, in fact, required for children to reach their full potential (Stephens 2009).
For children, play serves a multitude of developmental functions – physically, socially, cognitively, and emotionally. Play provides motivation and practice in each of these areas. When given the opportunity to play freely, children will test their limits physically – how high they can climb; how much weight they can lift; how far they can throw; how fast they can run. They’ll also be testing their courage and building their self-esteem. Socially, they’ll practice cooperation and sharing, leading and negotiating, [-p.2] making friends and standing up for one’s self. Cognitively, play helps children develop in the areas of creativity, logic, and problem-solving. It helps them explore, experiment, and discover. Play also contributes to children’s emotional development. As they experience joy, togetherness, and accomplishments, they develop a positive sense of self and a zest for living in an ever-changing and challenging world. Without doubt, these benefits contribute to academic success, as well, in such areas as science, mathematics, early literacy, social studies, and the arts.
Some adults, aware of the value of play to child development and learning, have a tendency to organize and plan play sessions for children. Adults set the agendas and direct the activities. They often introduce ‘games with rules’ (board games, bowling, tag, etc.) and provide materials that are designed to be used in a narrowly-specified way (puzzles, bingo, matching games, etc.). While such activities and materials have a place in child development, they should not be used instead of creative play. In creative play, children set the agenda (or play around with no agenda) and choose their own materials. They set their own rules (or decide there are no rules) and use open-ended materials (materials that can be used in a wide variety of ways).
…Adults may feel that children are just wasting time during creative play. After all, what could they be learning by filling a bucket with sand, pouring it out, and refilling it again – especially if they do this over and over again? [However,] children can be learning a lot by just “messing around” with simple materials.”
Ref: pp.1-2 Ruth Wilson (2012) Nature and Young Children: Encouraging creative play and learning in natural environments. Second edition. Routledge: London and New York.