Updated: Feb 23, 2019
By Joy Navan.
Many, many years ago, our family had milk and eggs delivered on our doorstep by the milkman. I remember the day when I decided to use the eggs to make “pies.” I took the carton of eggs around the corner of our house to my play yard by our big tree swing, and, in no time, I had the most beautiful mud pies laid out in a row! Of course, my mother did not quite appreciate my handiwork, and this was long before toy kitchen sets came with their own cake mixes and the like. Looking back, I still thrill at the imaginative play of my childhood, when my brothers and I could create just about anything with what we found in our environment. Blankets became tents or capes, sticks were teepees, fishing poles were magic wands, and the wooded creek at the back of our property was our very own fairy kingdom. Little did we realize then, that not only were we having fun, but we were also enriching our minds and enhancing our emotional development.
Educational psychologists like myself recognize play as a critical part of a child’s development, from the toddler years throughout childhood. Early on, functional play helps to develop motor skills. Beginning around three years, children begin constructive play; they make things with blocks, crayons, or puzzles. During those same years, functional play is accompanied by make-believe play, in which the child acts out roles. Children might choose to be a princess, a firefighter, a pirate, or perhaps a parent. Later, at around six years, the child understands the concept of rules, and he or she may choose passive games like board games, or active games like kickball, tag, or Mother, May I (Do you remember that one?). Each of the play phases is important for the child because they all promote cognitive, behavioral, and social development.
Imaginative and other types of play have many benefits. They enhance the child’s creativity, promote problem solving, and teach socialization skills. Perhaps most important, they help the child to learn to self-regulate. Alix Spiegel, an NPR commentator, reported on a study from the 1940s that required children to stand still. Three-year-olds could not do so at all, but five-year-olds were able to be still for around three minutes. Seven-year-olds were able to self-regulate and be still as long as the researchers requested. In 2001, psychologists repeated the study and found that this century’s five-year-olds were at the level of the previous study’s three-year-olds. The older seven-year-olds were scarcely at the five-year-old level (Spiegel, 2008).
Self-regulation, controlling one’s feelings and attention, is a highly important skill for children. It is a strong predictor of success in school, it benefits the child’s ability to socialize well with others, and it helps children to manage their behavior in positive ways. In imaginative play, children practice private speech; they narrate their own stories, self-correct, and make decisions. They perceive themselves in social settings as they play house, play school, or create other imaginative environments. On the other hand, the more structured the play, such as in some educational environments, the more the child is besieged with lessons and rules imposed by adults. Therefore, the more make-believe play and self-regulation are repressed. My suggestion to parents is to encourage imaginative play and to de-emphasize toys and video games whenever possible.
When the child enters school, playtime remains crucial. However, with the emphasis on testing, adequate time for recess has become a luxury that more and more educators may disregard. Getting back in touch with how the child develops and what enhances that development would benefit us all. As our oldest son did when he was in his sandbox creating the most marvelous enchanted worlds, or when our youngest son went to a stand of trees in our yard that he called his magic place, children need to have the time and space to make-believe, for real.
Dacey, J.S. & Travers, J.F. (2006). Human Development Across the Lifespan, 6th Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Spiegal, A. (2008). Old-Fashioned Play Builds Serious Skills. Retrieved February 21, 2008 from www.npr.org.
Dr. Joy Navan is an emeritus professor of gifted education and an educational consultant. She is a member of SENG’s Board of Directors and is active on SENG’s Continuing Education and SENGinar committees. She brings to this series 43 years in the profession, including her work as a classroom teacher, a teacher of the gifted, a teacher of teachers, and a consultant to parents of the gifted.