The Importance of Play in Early Childhood Development

Posted on February 12, 2019

by April S

The Power of Play

Play may not seem all that important in the scheme of things. Children need to eat, drink and sleep, but do they really need to play? Yes, it’s true that playing seems to make kids happy, but how necessary is it really? According to early childhood professionals, play is crucial to healthy childhood development.

Play is not frivolous: it enhances brain structure and function and promotes executive function (ie, the process of learning, rather than the content), which allow us to pursue goals and ignore distractions. ~ American Academy of Pediatrics
Child playing at the South Branch Library - dressed as a pirate

Play and Learn Areas @ the Library

Recently, I sat down with Nancy Eames, the Library’s Youth Services Coordinator, to talk about the power of play and the Library’s play & learn areas.

AS: I’m a huge fan of the Library’s play & learn areas. My kids love them! As a matter of fact, my preschooler made a friend a few months ago at the Oregon Library while exploring their play & learn area. How long has the Library had play areas?

NE: The play & learn areas are going into their third year. They started out small with just 8, then expanded across the entire TLCPL system.

AS: Who manages this project?

NE: Lauren Boeke is the librarian directly in charge of the play areas. Lauren has a fabulous early childhood background (and degree). She was the assistant director at the Toledo Day Nursery for years before coming to work for the Library. Actually, the entire Ready to Read team help with this initiative. They’re all really good parent educators.

AS: When you were putting together the play areas was there a specific focus and/or target age group?

NE: 0-5. We try to have things that are baby or toddler safe in those areas. Also, we very intentionally did not include toys that support images and characters, because research shows that children become less creative when they play with those commercial toys. So, we looked for high-quality, non-commercial toys. We looked for non-branded things with intention. Sometimes that was really hard, because we also have themes that we rotate among the branches. Each month, branches receive a new theme box in their delivery. That way, they can put out things in what we call the imagination station, which is a little puppet stage that can become a bank, a post office, a vet clinic, and so on. One of the theme kits is sewing. And we finally found a toy sewing machine that didn’t have Barbie or something else on it. That was really hard to find. I also struggle with the fact that all the girl toys are pink. Girls like other colors too.

AS: Yes, I get really irritated when our kids get all of those pink things or too many baby dolls.

NE: Yes, I know what you mean. It’s gender stereotyping. You should check out Let Toys Be Toys. They call attention to manufacturers that offer more diversity in their choices and provide a lot of great articles on how gender stereotyping hurts kids. There’s also Let Books Be Books. That would make an interesting blog post – breaking stereotypes or gender stereotypes.

AS: Yes, it would be really interesting.

NE: It feels like a really important intention in the types of toys we select for our play areas.

AS: For my kids, I’ve been gravitating more towards learning & creative type toys. Things that are going to help a child’s mind develop more.

NE: Kids really need to do stuff with their hands, to touch physical objects. You learn a lot more by playing with a three dimensional toy than doing that activity on a screen. For that reason, we have alphabet blocks and things like that.

I’m really excited about a new toy I just bought for our program center – it’s not preschool … more school aged kids or even teens. They’re called KEVA planks and it’s a building toy, but it’s constructed in a way that you can build really tall towers. And if they fall down nobody gets hurt. At the building museum in Washington D.C. they built one that was over 50 feet tall using a cherry picker type device to get the really tall ones on top. Recently, I purchased 2400 KEVA planks for the program center, so we can start taking part in more free play building programs.

AS: Does the Library offer any programs that integrate play?

NE: Library play date is one of our core programs that focuses on play. Some of our branches are now using their play and learn toys as part of library play date, so those theme kits come in handy. Wordplay is one really big program that emphasizes the power of play and words. We also offer Rhythm and Rhyme. It’s a partnership with the Lucas County Board of Developmental Disabilities. Their staff leads an activity playtime, then our staff provides the storytime.

AS: Is there play involved in the program?

NE: Not so much free play, more like guided play. They’re doing things like yoga and dancing. The Board of DD staff are there to help families recognize developmental milestones and talk to them about concerns. You know, if you have a concern, there’s an expert here you can talk to. Or they are encouraging clients that are already using the Board of DD to attend. Their staff are on hand for the first half to lead the play time. It’s an opportunity for them to kind of casually assess as well as provide advice and feedback.

AS: This is probably something people don’t know the library offers.

NE: We do not advertise it as a developmental disability storytime, because we want it to be accessible to everybody and kids who have been identified as having a disability need that experience of participating in a typical storytime program.

AS: It’s great for people who want to learn more.

NE: Yes. And it’s kind of like an “As an Expert” opportunity for families and parents. Sometimes parents have questions that should be answered by an expert like a pediatrician or developmental expert.

AS: I have to say that my kids love the variety of programs and play areas at the Library.

NE: That’s great to hear.

Toddler playing at the Library
Children need to develop a variety of skill sets to optimize their development and manage toxic stress. Research demonstrates that developmentally appropriate play with parents and peers is a singular opportunity to promote the social-emotional, cognitive, language, and self-regulation skills that build executive function and a prosocial brain. Furthermore, play supports the formation of the safe, stable, and nurturing relationships with all caregivers that children need to thrive. ~ Academy of Pediatrics
Woman playing with child at the Library

Play offers countless benefits for children (and caregivers). And while many people may realize it’s important for kids to have opportunities to play, they may not completely understand or think about how it’s connected to early childhood development. Below, are five really great ways play benefits children in a positive way.

5 Benefits of Play

1. Essential for brain development

Children learn to think, remember, reason and pay attention through play. They also learn problem solving skills, patience and so much more … all while playing.

2. Reduces obesity

Active toddlers with plenty of opportunities to run, jump and play tend to become more physically confident and in turn more likely to become active and healthy throughout their life.

3. Helps to manage stress

Studies have pointed to a relationship between play and reduced stress levels (and related behavior issues). “Young children who display disruptive behavior reduce those behaviors when their teacher spends extra time playing individually with them, according to a recent University of Virginia study.”

4. Helps families bond

Banking Time has been shown to help build supportive relationships between children and their parents/caregivers. Through play, children will have conversations and interactions with parents that encourages emotional attunement, which in turn can help children learn to regulate their emotions.

5. Enhances communication skills

Through play, children often exchange ideas and verbalize quite a bit. I’ve been incredibly lucky to witness the power of play first-hand. Children have amazing brains.

“Play is how children use their vocabulary by interacting with toys and people around them.” ~ Lauren Boeke, Early Literacy Librarian at TLCPL

Learn More About the Benefits of Play

Child playing at the Library

Types of Play

There are many types and stages of play. From creative to imaginative to socio-dramatic play, they all contribute positively to early childhood development.

“Imaginative play with simple, open-ended materials can help a child use the most language – empty boxes, pots and pans can be some of a child’s favorite toys.” ~ Lauren Boeke

6 Stages of Play

There are many different types and stages of play that play an important role in early childhood development. Here are 6 to note:

1. Unoccupied Play

Play starts from birth. It may seem like newborns are just sitting there wiggling around, grabbing things and trying to slobber on everything they possibly can. But did you know they’re actually learning a lot about the way their body moves and works? They’re also learning about things in their environment in an effort to understand their world. Their brains are making important connections during this stage of development.

2. Solitary (Independent) Play

Independent play is most common from 0-2. It’s when an infant or child plays alone (even if other children are around). Why is this type of play important? It teaches them how to be content on their own and keep themselves entertained, which in turn sets them up for self-sufficiency in the future.

3. Onlooker Play

This type of play is fairly common in toddlers. It’s when a child simply watches what other kids are doing around them. They may even talk or ask questions, but typically don’t join others in play. Believe it or not, younger children can learn a lot from simply watching what other people are doing.

4. Parallel Play

When children play by each other, side by side, but not with each other. It’s like their in their own little worlds. Like onlooker play, it’s also common in toddlerhood. This sets the stage for future development.

5. Associative Play

During associative play children may be observing others, getting ideas, communicating and at times seem to be doing the same thing (like building similar things with blocks). With this type of play, there are usually no set rules or formal organization. However, it sets the stage for a lot of important skills like socialization, problem solving, cooperation and language development. It’s sort of the bridge between parallel and cooperative play.

6. Cooperative Play

This is when kids really start to play together. This stage is especially important as it sets the stage for future social skills. Children may face challenges during this stage, because it involves a lot of communication and cooperation. This is also when children typically start to develop friendships.

Learn More About Types of Play

eBooks from hoopla on Early Childhood Play

Outdoor Play by Sue Durant
Role Play by Judith Harries
Sensory Play by Sue Gascoyne
Heuristic Play by Sheila Riddall-Leech
Play and Learning in the Early Years by Jennie Lindon
Creative Block Play : A Comprehensive Guide to Learning Through Building by Rosanne Hansel
Loose Parts: Inspiring Play in Young Children by Lisa Daly and Miriam Beloglovsky
Lisa Murphy on Play: The Foundation of Children's Learning
Learn and Play the Green Way: Fun Activities with Reusable Materials by Rhoda Redleaf
Come and Play: Sensory Integration Strategies for Children with Play Challenges by Aerial Cross

Read More About the Power of Play

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