• by Yojani Fatima Hernandez • IDRA Newsletter • April 1998 • 

When the childless artist and poet William Blake observed a group of children playing in London’ss Fountain Court, he exclaimed, “That is heaven!”

When we think of happy children we usually do not envision children watching television or sitting still at a desk. We usually visualize children playing.

Parents in the 18th century generally insisted that play, along with affectionate behavior, be abandoned as early as age seven. Only recently have we discovered that asking a child to sit still at a desk to work may be counterproductive. The educational value of play is being recognized as a necessity to support learning.

Still, many early childhood educators feel their responsibility is to prepare children for the challenges of serious learning, only to find it impossible to get young children to sit still and pay attention.

The appropriate response to this dilemma is to adjust teaching techniques to include methods that are developmentally appropriate for young children. Other teachers are demonstrating the importance of play in the lives of young children and are making use of it for educating.

Foyle, Lyman and Thies state that play is a major vehicle for enabling children to learn about their world (1991). They describe play as a “channel for exploring, for testing the limits of their environment, for engaging their minds in new patterns of thought, and for devising alternative actions” (Foyle, Lyman and Thies, 1991).

During play, children express ideas and feelings, conduct new knowledge and develop oral language skills as they interact with objects and the people around them. The National Center for Research and Education Learning believes that play provides opportunities for exploration, experimentation and manipulation that are essential for constructing knowledge (Bredekamp, et al., 1992). Children can examine and refine their learning in light of the feedback they receive from the environment and other people. It is through play that children develop their imaginations and creativity.

Children construct meaning from their experiences. The work of Piaget and Vygotsky posits that development occurs as a result of the child constructing meanings through interaction with the environment (McCollum, 1994). Essentially children learn what they experience.

Consider children involved in dramatic play. They create their own scenarios, decide who their characters are going to be and how they will interact with each other, and decide the final outcome of their play. These are the foundations of understanding reading.

Play is the vehicle for learning. Children answer a myriad of questions through play:

Consider the girl who ventured to the top of the monkey bars. She calls to you “Mira que alto llegue! [Look how high I got!]” She questions herself on whether she can do it, she starts climbing to test this and finally she finds her answer: She does it! (Bauer, 1996).

Hence, play provides the setting for experimentation and literacy.

During the primary school grades, children’s play becomes more rule-oriented and promotes the development of autonomy and cooperation. This contributes to social, emotional and intellectual development. Children need years of play with real objects and events before they are able to understand the meaning of symbols such as letters and numbers (Bredekamp, 1987).

Play serves important functions in children’s physical, language, mental and social development. For example, in order to ensure the physical development of 4-and 5-year-olds, it is important to utilize drawing, painting and cutting with blunt scissors. Playtime is very active for these youngsters, so climbing, jumping and swinging on the playground are active ways of enhancing their physical development. Essentially, young children have high levels of energy and must be allowed to express their energy in order to have a healthy period of physical development.

To encourage language development in young children between the ages of 3 and 5, teachers can have children repeat a story they have heard and can tell them interactive stories. They can include in their curriculum singing, playing singing games, rhymes, dancing, dramatic play, acting out stories and imitating family members or friends. Children resort to physical means of communication sometimes because they do not have the verbal skills to express frustration and other feelings. Thus, playing is an important part of children’s learning how to interact with their environment.

Some principles have emerged as common denominators in the study of play. These include the following (Foyle, Lyman and Thies, 1991).

  • Play should be child-directed, child-initiated and child-involved.
  • Play should be autonomous of external goals.
  • Play occurs when a child feels secure and his or her basic needs are met.
  • Play is fun.
  • Play supports and enhances all areas of development.

Types of play include sensory-motor play, pretend play and games with rules. Sensory-motor play is the experimentation by infants and toddlers with bodily sensation and motor movements and with objects and people. During this motor-oriented play stage (from infancy to approximately 2 years of age), children practice and refine motor skills and are self-involved and egocentric in their behavior. This type of isolated play enables children to separate themselves from their surroundings and recognize their actions as affecting events in their world.

For example, infants will push and grab objects to make interesting things happen. Older infants will push a ball and crawl after it. At about age 2, a toddler will become aware of the way objects function in the social world.

Pretend play is a complex type of play that involves children carrying out action plans, taking on roles and transforming objects as they express their ideas and feelings about their environment (Garvey, 1984). During this stage (from age 3 to 5), pretend play becomes a prominent activity.

For example, family roles such as mother, father and baby are popular and are integrated into elaborate play with themes related to familiar home activities. Children also begin to take on other character roles such as nurses and pilots as well as fictional roles drawn from books and television (Fernie, 1988).

By about age 5, children become interested in formal games with peers. Games will usually involve two or more sides, competition and rules for determining a winner. These games provide children with the ability to formulate strategies and develop goals.

By encouraging autonomy and intervening only when necessary to model appropriate behavior or to stimulate conversation, an early childhood educator can promote play and enrich social interactions. The purpose is to support children and minimize adult control as much as possible so that the play process is child-initiated and child satisfying (Spodek, Saracho and Davis, 1991).

William Blake hoped the ways of children would inspire adults to rekindle the visionary flame of childhood. Today, we find incorporating play into the education of children is necessary for their physical, language, mental and social development.


Bauer, Hilaria. “Scientific Literacy is Child’s Play.” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, April 1996).

Bredekamp, S. (Ed.). Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth through Age 8 (Washington, D.C.: National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1987).

Bredekamp, S., R.A. Knuth, L.G. Kunesh, and D.D. Schulman. What Does Research Say about Early Childhood Education? (Oak Brook, Calif.: National Center for Research and Education Learning, 1992).

Fernie, D. “The Nature of Children’s Play,” ERIC Digest (Urbana, Ill.: ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education, 1988) ED307967 88.

Foyle, H.C., L. Lyman and S.A. Thies. Cooperative Learning in the Early Childhood Classroom (National Education Association, 1991).

Garvey, C. Play (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984).

McCollum, Pam. “Examining the Three Rs: Readiness, Redshirting and Retention,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, April 1994).

Spodek, B., O. Saracho and M. Davis. Foundation of Early Childhood Education, second edition (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1991).

Yojani Fatima Hernández is a research assistant in the IDRA Division of Research and Evaluation. Comments and questions may be sent to her via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©1998, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the April 1998 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]