The study of play takes us deeper into the realms of cognitive psychology and social learning, but play is also about physical development and becoming a skilled language user. We could add that it is about learning games with rules, or that it is about fantasy and imagination. Or that it is about running around, climbing, rough and tumble, fun and mucking about. Certainly play can incorporate all of these things and more, so it is important to find a helpful starting point or model into which all of these things can be placed and threaded together.
Play can be seen to fulfil functions in the physical, emotional/social, cognitive/linguistic and imaginative/creative domains of development. The activity of young children involves them developing skills in using their bodies, promoting strength, co-ordination and agility. It involves them forming relationships with close special people as well as taking part in groups, learning how to make friends, be sociable, share and take turns. In this way they develop an understanding of others and learn to feel empathy, responding appropriately to the needs and feelings of others. They become confident, eager to try new things and explore their environment.
Children's activities involve communication; they learn how to talk, express themselves and listen to others. They are discovering how things work, finding out about different objects or living things, naming and categorising them, as they build knowledge about the material and natural world. Most of all, they are using imagination to create possibilities and alternatives, to express their own individuality and represent their thoughts, ideas and knowledge through marks and pictures, making up stories, songs or dances.
Play is important for all children, and those who have difficulties, disabilities or special needs will all find in play what it is they need to promote their development, and indeed it is the key means by which children with special needs or disabilities can achieve positive developmental outcomes, learn and grow.
All children go through difficulties and play is a way for them to work through what is troubling them, or what is making them feel insecure. When children are able to act out scenarios that concern them - for example a new baby in the family - they are able to work through what it means for them.
Troubled children may find great release of their fears and anxiety if they can get to the source of their fears through stories, puppets or small-world characters. Severely traumatised children, for example those who have been abused or experienced the effects of war, can, through carefully led activities with play or drama therapists, find great healing of those inner wounds which trouble them.
Domains and aspects of play (see downloadable table attached, top right)
PLAY IS WHAT I DO
Aimed at both parents and practitioners, Play Is What I Do examines the role and importance of play in children's early learning and development. It explores how the latest brain and early education research is informing our thinking on play, discusses the importance of outdoor play and examines the role of the adult as play partner and how to make space for and resource children's play.
It is published by the Pre-school Learning Alliance, and priced £10.75 for non-members and £7.80 for members. To order a copy, visit: www.pre-school.org.uk/shop or tel: 0870 603 0062, citing reference: A152.