Why Play Is Essential in Cognitive Development

Kids will never enjoy their childhood if playing is not incorporated in their daily activities. The most common perception of play is that it is a fun but rather frivolous activity. Many parents, the general public, and some teachers and administrators view play as a nice treat for children who have spent time engaged in more serious learning tasks. Contrary to what most adults think, playing is not an inconsequential activity for children because it does not only develop their imagination but it also has a pivotal role in their cognitive development.

It was Vygotsky (1978) who emphasized the importance of play as part of education. He saw play as important in that imagination and play stretch a child’s conceptual ability and therefore lead to development. Play leads to a basic understanding of abstract thought. For example through play a child can learn new concepts such as big and little, tall and short. They can also learn about emotion and social issues through play. Play allows children to try out different kinds of behavior and strategies within a safe environment. Children can then transfer knowledge and strategies developed through play to other problems and activities.

Vygotsky (1978) found that children need to play in order to actively construct knowledge. He emphasized the importance of culture and language. Vygotsky thought that there were three stages of language development – social, egocentric and inner speech. Vygotsky stated that culture was needed to move from elementary mental functions to higher mental functions. A main focus of his theory was the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). He thought that scaffolding of learning was important, as was the educational role of the expert other. Vygotsky views imaginative play as a key to the overall development of the child. Challenging the child to increasingly higher levels of functioning.

Play creates a zone of proximal development in the child. In play, the child always behaves beyond his average age, above his daily behavior; in play it is as though he were a head taller than himself. As in the focus of a magnifying glass, play contains all developmental tendencies in a condensed form and is itself a major source of development (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 102).

On the other hand, there is a broad category of activities that can be called “play”. This includes a great variety of other behaviors, such as swinging, sliding, running, digging in the dirt, building with blocks, dancing to music, making up nonsense rhyming words, dressing up, and pretending. Because of this variety, no one definition of play can adequately describe its many facets. However, psychologists identified four attributes that stand out as essential to in understanding of the childhood play. First, play is active. When children play, movement often involves both large and small muscles. Children are using their bodies and manipulating the natural and human-made materials that they find in their play environments. Rather than passively taking in information, children involved in play are engaged in learning about the world by constructing knowledge through active interaction with people and things (Chaille & Silvern, 1996).

Another characteristic of childhood play is that it is “child selected” (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997). Quality play experiences are those in which the child chooses to participate. For example, when I was a child, I do not like to do household chores. For most children, that request to clean our rooms would be met with groans and protests, and it would not be thought of as a playful event. However, I choose to clean my bike fervently in preparation for an upcoming ride and because I find the task enjoyable because I can play with my friends.

Bruner (1972) suggested that another characteristic of play is that it is process oriented. When I was a child, I love playing Lego blocks and I construct a buildings out of these blocks. I make different sizes and structures using these blocks, like the church, school and our house. Once I get tired of our place, I would dismantle the blocks and build a new place with markets, playground and park. I found that this process orientation gives me, as a child, freedom to explore and experiment without fear of failure just by playing. There is no right or wrong way to play, so children can try a variety of play options, knowing that it is the road traveled rather than the destination that is the most important aspect of this activity.

A final characteristic of play is that it usually requires a “suspension of reality”. When children play, they set aside the realities of their world and enjoy activities that are often silly but fun. For example, when I was a child, I make up nonsense rhyming words where only my playmates know their meaning. We know that they are not “real” words, but we still enjoy the process of creating them because it is fun and when people hear us they are at a loss about what we are talking about. Piaget (1962) calls this a ludic set. This ludic (or playful) mind-set allows children to suspend their knowledge of reality and engage in activities that are creative, spontaneous, and fun. Children who pretend to be astronauts or characters from their favorite movies are creating a ludic set to engage in this play.

Because many people assume that the primary goal of schooling is to feed the intellect, we will tackle here the benefits of play on how it can enhance cognitive development. Using Piaget’s terminology, cognitive development is the process of building more elaborate schema or concepts about the workings of the world. Both Bruner (1966) and Piaget (Piaget & Inhelder, 1969) stress that multisensory experiences with things and people in the child’s environment lead to conceptual development. Play provides the most natural and enjoyable opportunities for these experiences and therefore is a major tool that children use to understand their world. For example, when I was a child, my parents brought me a Lego set, where I would build castles, buildings I see around our place and even buildings I see on television and books. When building castles, I was internalizing the information I got from fairy tales. As I got to know about the Eiffel Tower and the Pyramids of Giza in school, my play has expanded and solidified into several things I could build using these Lego blocks.

Also during play, the ability to effectively solve a problem is a major asset in intellectual development. Children who can make sense of the problems they face and work through them are adding greatly to their understanding of the world and their ability to work through future problems. Evidence points to a clear link between play and problem solving. Children who engage in creative play experiences are better at convergent (Vandenberg, 1980) and divergent (Pepler & Ross, 1981) problem solving. Play frees up children to explore and experiment in ways that lead to important intellectual understanding. I could relate this benefit of play when my grandmother gave me a jigsaw puzzle, where I never stopped in solving the puzzle until I completed the picture of how the puzzle should look like, as presented in the picture on the box. I learned to carefully judge each puzzle piece to fit perfectly so I can complete the whole picture. Thus, during play, children encounter and master new problems as well. Play provides many chances for practicing problem solving.

The third major way in which play assists in intellectual development is by helping children master abstract symbolism. This is especially true when children engage in dramatic play. As they pretend, children arbitrarily assign meaning to objects they are using in their play. A block is temporarily viewed as a door to the castle, child-sized chairs in rows become passenger seating on an airplane, or a magnifying glass becomes “that thing doctors use.” Objects become arbitrary, abstract symbols for real things needed for dramatic play. Nourot and Van Hoorn (1991) state this same concept as follows: “In its complex forms play is characterized by the use of symbols to represent objects, ideas, and situations not present in the immediate time and place” (p. 41). I could relate to this part when I would play as a teacher to my friends. I would have a stick out of a tree branch and a blackboard made out of card board. My playmates would then gamely sit staring at me and when I have a question they would raise their hands just like in the real classroom.

It is said that children who are able to manipulate abstract symbols in their play are more likely to succeed in managing symbols in school. Both reading and mathematics are fundamental components of formal education that require frequent manipulation of arbitrary and abstract symbol systems. Smilansky and Shefatya (1990) emphasize that children who are good at dramatic play are going to be more successful with these and other academic tasks.

Indeed, during the early years, play provides many opportunities to express and develop a child’s creative talents. In free play, children experiment with things and ideas and create new combinations not experienced before. Wasserman (1992) states it this way: “The creation of new ideas does not come from minds trained to follow doggedly what is already known. Creation comes from tinkering and playing around, from which new forms emerge” (p. 134). Goertzel and Goertzel (1962) studied the early years of 400 famous adults and discovered that a common thread for these creative individuals was the opportunity to explore their areas of interest and play with things and ideas. For example, Frank Lloyd Wright was encouraged by his mother from an early age to play with colored papers and cubes of wood. She felt that these play experiences would stimulate his intellectual development.

Indeed, play is one important factor in honing the cognitive development of children. As play is composed of active, “child-selected”, “process-oriented”, and imaginative processes, it can develop children and young people to become more efficient and effective in their understanding of the world and in their mental processes. Children’s thinking is not the same as adult thinking. As children grow later, their thinking changes and cognitive development consists these changes and developments. In this regard, we should not take for granted how the role of play in children can enhance their knowledge and creativity. Although these can be fun and frivolous activities, there are many benefits that children can reap by allowing them to freely play to expand their imagination and creativity. In doing so, they are honed to become well-meaning and self-actualized individuals.

Works Cited

Bredekamp, Sue and Copple, Carol. (Eds.). Developmentally Appropriate Practice in Early Childhood Programs (rev. ed.). Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1997.

Bruner, Jerome. The nature and uses of immaturity, American Psychologist, 27(1972): 687-708.

Bruner, Jerome. Toward a theory of instruction. Cambridge, MA : Harvard University Press, 1966.

Chaille, Christine and Silvern, Steven B. Understanding through play, Childhood Education, 72.5(1996), 274–277.

Goertzel, Mildred and Goertzel, George. Cradles of Eminence. Boston : Little, Brown, 1962.

Nourot, P.M. and Van Hoorn, J.L. Symbolic play in pre-school and primary settings, Young Children, 46.6(1991): 40-50.

Pepler, Debra J. and Ross, Hildy S. The effects of play on convergent and divergent problem solvingm Child Development, 52(1981): 1202-1210.

Piaget, Jean and Inhelder, Barbel. The Psychology of the Child (H. Weaver, Trans.). New York : Basic Books, 1969.

Smilansky, Sarah and Shefatya, Leah. Facilitating Play: A Medium for Promoting Cognitive, Socio-Emotional and Academic Development in Young Children. Gaithersburg, MD: Psychosocial and Educational Publications, 1990.

Vandenberg, B.L. Play, problem-solving and creativity. New Directions for Child Development, 9 (1980): 49-68.

Vygotsky, Lev. Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes (M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, E. Superman, Eds.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978.

Wassermann, Selma. (1992). Serious play in the classroom— How messing around can win you the Nobel Prize. Childhood Education, 68.3 (1992): 133-139.

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