Dolls, blocks, tonka trucks, dress-up clothes to produce firemen, fairy princesses, chefs and world travelers: Most children’s lives are consumed by play things and play. Whether building towers out of blocks or constructing extravagant tea parties, they are in constant activity. Physical, socio-emotional and cognitive development of children is dependent upon this activity. It is through play that much of children’s early learning is achieved, which is why opportunity for play is a key aspect in many preschool and kindergarten programs.
There are many benefits to the activity of playing. It exercises cognitive, linguistic and social skill. Through touch, exploration and trial and error, children find out about the world around them. By interacting with other children they find out about themselves and their relationship to others. Play is also the way children develop their sense of self, sense of the world, and sense of where they fit in.
There are stages of complexity of play. The first stage of play is exploration or manipulation of materials. Examples of such play are feeling sand, scribbling with crayons or pounding clay. Children move on to what is called symbolic play when they begin to use objects and materials as symbols for something else. For instance, a child may join blocks to make a “bridge” or flatten clay to make a “cookie”. This is the play of children who are, as Piaget labels, are in the preoperational stage. It is also the type of play one would see in many preschool and kindergarten classrooms.
Piaget also believes that it is through play where children construct a sense of order and meaning out of their environment. They are constantly organizing and reorganizing new experiences and information. This process of altering previously established patterns of organization or schemas is what Piaget calls learning.
As children build social skills and begin to play more cooperatively, they begin to play games in which they devise rules. These rules may change often, and the participants may shift with little effort. Through this type of play, children may imitate adults and experiment with what it means to be a care giver, or a leader while simultaneously learning how to solve problems and work cooperatively with others.
With continued play children develop confidence in themselves and their abilities and they work towards becoming self-directed persons. With a solid foundation, they will be on the right track towards continued growth in knowledge and understanding.