The Implications and Impact of Play

Veronica Denise Goh

The need for play is so compelling that humans find a myriad of ways to do this. This is especially so for children who are learning about themselves and the world around them.

Factor (1993, p.22) asserts “So powerful is the urge to play…that children even in the most terrible circumstances insist on playing” (cited in Glover, p.13)

However, the value of play has a history of being a point of contention among theorists and those in the early childhood field. From the 1870’s, research on the value of play began on three separate areas, cognitive, social and emotional (Fleer, 1996, p.13). In the 1970’s, studies on children’s play were more focused on either a social or cognitive context. Researchers now have shown that play is a concurrent development along social and cognitive avenues. In addition, the value of play today is now recognized as beneficial to the development of the whole child (Johnson, Christie, Yawkey, 1987, p.149).

Bredekamp and Copple (1997, p.14) have communicated their belief on children’s play and how play promotes their social, emotional and cognitive development.   They also suggest that the ways children play reflect their levels of development.   I will discuss the statements made by them and show evidence as to the extent of their accuracy. I will also show evidence that play promotes beyond the development of just social, emotional and cognitive as suggested by these authors and that while play can promote positive concepts and skills, it can also be detrimental to children’s development.

Definition of Play

The definition of ‘play’ has also been the subject of many debates. One of the reasons is the difficulty in distinguishing play and exploration. It is hard to know when one stops and the other begins.   However, there is a general consensus among researchers and theorists today that play includes characteristics like intrinsic motivation, freely chosen, pleasurable, enjoyable, engaging, process-oriented, active, self rather than object-oriented, and non literal (Feeny, Christensen, Moravcik, 1996, p.116,117).   Monighan-Nourot, Scales and Van Hoorn (1987, p.20) state that play occurs when children use the knowledge gained from exploration in their play.

The Value of Play

Play has been widely accepted by early childhood educators as crucial in children’s development (Glover, 1999, p.5) and the ‘cornerstone of early childhood education’ (MacNaughton, 1999, p.37). Continuous research on play and its impact on children’s development have further fuelled this belief (Kagan, 1990, cited in Glover, p.5).   In fact, children’s play has been acknowledged to be so valuable that it was included in the Convention on the rights of the child under Article 31 (1989, p.256) that all children have the right ‘to engage in play’ (Feeny, et al. 1996, p.125).

Boyer (1998, p.90) asserts that a person with a ‘playful attitude’ in learning is not interested in extrinsic rewards and this enables that person to respond to new knowledge or reconstruct knowledge already acquired. Ellis (1973, p.21, cited in Boyer, 1998, p. 90) believes that when a person encounters things around his/her environment in a novel fashion, it reinforces his/her desire to acquire new knowledge. For children, this playful attitude allows them to explore, discover and learn about their world and life (Fineman, 1962; Freyberg, 1973; Glickman, 1984; Singer, 1973; Singer, Singer, 1977, cited in Boyer, 1998, p.90).

Hence, play, does contribute to children’s development and as Bredekamp and Copple (1997, p.14) have suggested, in the areas of social, emotional and cognitive.


Research has shown that from birth, babies engage in ‘playful social interchange’ and as they mature, social development becomes more evident as children begin to engage in more imaginative pretend play (Hendrick, 1996, p.408).

Glover (1999, p.9) states that play allows young children to interact with people outside their family members. She also believes that building relationships with their peers is crucial to children’s development of social skills. Children who have inadequate peer relationships may experience academic and social problems and may feel negatively about school (Sodorow, 1995, p.135; Buhrmester, 1990 cited in Sodorow, 1995, p.135).

According to the theory of Bandura and Walter’s theory of social learning, peers act as models especially for young children. Through observation and play experiences, children imitate and learn about sharing, turn-taking, self-regulation, teamwork, cooperation and negotiation, effective communication, relating to others, altruistic acts, and feel a sense of belonging (Glover, 1999, p.9; Dodge, Colker, 1996, p. 25; Elliot, Vasta, 1970; Hartup, Coates, 1967, cited in Bukatko, Daehler, 1995, p.574; Lefrancois, 1994, p.107,108).

Playing with peers provides children with opportunities to learn about social awareness, for example, ‘the do’s and don’ts of the social world’ (Glover, 1999, p.9; Bukatko, Daehler, 1995, p. 574). Through playing with others, children develop social competence, extend their knowledge of social understanding and skills as they discover more about successful social approaches, initiating and maintaining friendships, and social problem-solving through positive means (Glover, 1999, p.9; Dodge and Colker, 1996, p.25).


Glover (1999, p.11) states that symbolic competence such as, ‘symbolic thought, formation and understanding complex relationships’ is pivotal in cognitive development. Nourot and Van Hoorn (1991, p.41) also believe that symbolic behaviour provides the foundation for the cognitive skills needed in pretend and constructive play.

When children play, they assimilate and accommodate new information into their exiting cognitive schemes (Nourot, Van Hoorn, 1991, p.43) as identified by Piaget as one of the learning processes (Krantz, 1994, p.31). Play offers children opportunities to develop spatial perspective skills (Rubin, Rein, Vandenberg, 1983, cited in Gowan, 1995, p.76), promote the ability to decontextualize, and foster object substitution skills. It also helps children to plan, think logically, rationalize, categorize, and ‘to construct, consolidate and communicate their growing understanding of reality (Gowan, 1995, p.76-82).   Through play, children learn to resolve conflicts among themselves and Piaget ‘s theory of ‘social cognitive conflict’ suggests that this helps them to reflect on their own viewpoints and reasoning which supports their cognitive development (Arthur, Beecher, Dockett, Farmer, Death, 1997, p.104).

Play also promotes children’s learning of academic subjects. Math, reading, and writing consist of symbols and require the ability to function symbolically to interpret these symbols (Nourot, Van Hoorn, 1991, p.42). Through play and playing with objects, children also learn and extend their existing knowledge about size, shape, numbers, counting, space, and measurement (Glover, 1999, p.11). Levin (1996, cited in Glover, 1999, p.11) maintains that the skills children develop through play are essential for their future academic performance.


Play can be therapeutic and a form of catharsis for children. It can help children deal with their feelings in a world that they have yet to fully comprehend. In fact, therapists have for a long time been using play as a means of helping children express or release their feelings. (Hendrick, 1996, p.410,411). Freud (1856-1939) in his psychoanalytic perspective theory (Berk, 1994, p.14) believed that play is a principal means through which children can work out their ‘fears, anxieties and desires’ (Feeny et al. 1996, p.126).

Through play, children are also provided with ‘opportunities to see themselves as ‘competent, powerful and useful’ (Glover, 1999, p.10), such as, when children cooperatively plan and create something together (Feeny et al. 1996, p.128). Children feel good about themselves as they gain a sense of power and pride in their abilities when they practise at doing something during play until they achieve success. This enhances their self-esteem when children know that there are some things that they can do on their own (Glover, 1999, p.10). In addition, play allows children to feel a sense of control and help them master their environment because when they play, they can use their imagination to design their own play experience. When children are given the opportunity to decide what they want to play and how they want to play, they learn to exercise their own power. Play promotes the development of and strengthens children’s ego (Hendrick, 1996, p.411,412).

Other Developments

Through the above discussion, I have provided evidence and supported Bredekamp and Copple’s statements. However, other readings have shown that the role of play goes beyond just these three areas.


Play promotes the physical motor development, such as, gross and fine motor skills, bodily control and strength, body awareness, hand-eye coordination (Glover, 1999, p.12; Feeny et al.,1996, p.127; Hendrick, 1996, p.406; Dodge, Colker, 1996, p.9). These skills are important for children to develop in order that they can manage ‘future learning tasks’ and master new and more difficult physical skills (Dodge, Colker, 1996, p.9; Glover, 1999, p.12). Physical skills are also fundament for cognitive skills in learning the three R’s (Dodge, Colker, 1996, p.9).

Active play helps children to develop fine and gross motor skills gradually as they develop more control over their bodies. When children run, skip, jump on a pogo stick, manipulate play objects like fixing puzzles, build things, they are utilising their existing physical skills to develop new and more complex ones such as, ‘building their speed, endurance, balance and strength. In addition, Glover asserts that fine motor skills cannot maturate without ‘exploration, experimentation and practice (Glover, 1999, p.12).


Children also develop language as they engage in play with others through interactions, communicating with others or expressing their ideas. Children also acquire language when they label objects that they play with (Van Hoorn, Monighan-Nourot, Scales, Alward, p.20; Morrison, 1998, p.226). Balaban (1990, p.l36) states that make-believe play and language ‘complement and encourage’ both developments.


Play also fosters creativity and flexibility as children think of different ways of building something, explore novel experiences, combine activities and actions, or resolve a problem during play from new angles. Symbolic play also encourages creativity such as when a child uses a block as a bottle of sauce to pour into a pan (Nourot, Van Hoorn, 1991, p.43; Lay-Dopyera, Dopyeara, 1993, p.50).

Play helps children to develop character, personality, and attitudes, which can impact on their lives in the present and in the future.

 The Risk of Play

As mentioned-above, play is valuable to children’s development. However, recent research suggest that play can also be ‘dangerous’ to their developments (MacNaughton, 1998, p.82).

MacNaughton, (1998, p.84) illustrates that “play is dangerous because there is so much at stake”.   While children learn about their social world, about fairness, sharing of power, their value and the value of others, and enjoy social diversity through play, these same concepts can also be instilled in children in a negative way. Children can also learn about unfairness, battle with each other for power and be bias towards diversity, such as, ‘racism, sexism, homophobia and classism’ (Fleer, 1996; Derman-Sparks, 1993-4; Neugebaurer, 1992; Kyoung & Lewis, 1995; Creaser & Dau, 1995, cited in MacNaughton, 1998, p.84).

Through peer and adult influence, children learn about ‘gender, sexuality, love, hate, power, violence, friendship, inclusion and exclusion’ and they practise what they learn through play. Children can feel hurt, be isolated, made to feel rejected, and humiliated, harassed because of who and what they are, such as cultural and economic backgrounds, disabilities, and gender, and what they do, like when they cross gender boundaries or when boys play with traditionally girl toys and vice-versa (MacNaughton, 1998, p.84, 85; Brown, 1995, p.13; Derman-Sparks, 1993-4; Creaser & Dau, 1995; Siraj-Blatchford, 1994, cited in MacNaughton, 1998, p.84,85; MacNaughton, G. 1997, p. 58-65).

Play as a Reflection of Children’s Development

People like Piaget, Parten, Freud, Erikson, and many others have designed milestones or stages of development. Nicolson and Shipstead suggested that the various views of these theorists should be seen as allowing us a fuller understanding of children’s development, rather than ‘competitors’ (Nicolson, Shipstead, 1994, p.26,41; Berk, 1994, p.14,17).

Children generally develop skills at around the same time. Knowledge of the milestones of children of different ages aids the adult in being aware if a child is behind or advanced in his/her development. For example, if a 5-year-old child is observed to be frequently engaging in solitary or parallel play, the adult can deduce that he/she may be lacking in social skills. Again, if a four-year-old is able to engage in play with rules, it may be assumed that he/she is advanced in his/her development of cognitive skills. However, one must be mindful that milestones are intended to be ‘guidelines and not commandments’ (Nicolson, Shipstead, 1994, p.19).

McCune (1986, p.55,56) asserts that children indulge in symbolic play more frequently as their cognitive development matures and symbolic play accompanies the mental age rather than the chronological age of children. This appears to suggest that the level of children’s symbolic play can establish children’s level of mental capacity.

Dramatic play for two to three year olds is simple and often parallel. The doll is the focus of the play and the roles that children play are limited to mother, father and baby.   In contrast, dramatic play for the four, five and six year olds becomes more elaborate and the personalities of the children are evident in the play. More roles are involved and the plot can continue and progress over a much longer period of time (Paley, 1989, p.88). Through this illustration, it is reasonable to say that the developmental levels of children result in the composites of their play.

My stand is that children’s play can be indicators of their developmental levels. However, teachers should be cautious about their evaluations based on just a few observations. Through sharing notes with other teachers, talking to significant people in their lives, and through systematic observations, only then can teachers make informed evaluations about the children’s developmental levels (Nicolson, Shipstead, 1994, pg.313-314, 316).


Play as evidences have shown can promote children’s growth in many developmental areas. Yet, play can also be detrimental to children’s development and as such, educators must be wary of what children are learning. Children’s play can also be a ‘looking glass’ into their levels of development. Our role as early childhood educators is complex, to say the least. However, as educators of young children whose developments are at a sensitive period and are also rapidly progressing, we must give them the best education and for children, one of the best ways of learning is through play.


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