By Karen Walker, EdD

Both theory and research have demonstrated that for young children play is the optimal means for learning and development (Murphy, 2017; Toub, Rajan, Golinkoff, Hirsh-Pasek, 2016). As a profession, we have not done enough to define or defend play. In early childhood education, play is purposeful and freely chosen. We believe play is the work of children.

I have come to learn the word ‘play’ is not neatly defined and conjures a different vision depending on an individual’s experiences. With a ball, play is a sport. With a script, play is a performance in a theatre. With your dog, play is retrieving. With checkers or cards, play is a game. With a con artist, play is a trick. In each of these types of play, the players are actively engaged. As early childhood educators, we most often mean a child’s free play. To further distinguish this activity, I will often use the phrase playful learning to remind readers how we, as a profession, define play. This type of self-directed interest, often involves collaboration,
frequently requires critical thinking, includes the child’s interest, active engagement, and meaningful tasks. Playful learning is the way children interact with their world. Humans are uniquely wired to play. Play is universal; children from all cultural groups play. Archeologists recently discovered 3000-year-old footprints of Egyptian children playing in mud. But, playful learning can also occur when children are actively engaged in meaningful experiences facilitated by a caring, responsive adult; or, guided play.

In the 1990s, during the era of increased standardized testing, we began to see a push-down of academic learning. Kindergarten began looking more like 1st grade. Blocks, puzzles and dramatic play were replaced with desks and worksheets, and half-day programs gave way to a full day of instruction. Now we are seeing similar changes in our preschool programs, especially as they are opened on public school campuses. There is long-standing evidence that playful learning can influence the way children develop into adults, and childhood is a unique and fundamental time of life when certain skills and abilities develop.

There are five essential characteristics of play:

1. Play is spontaneous and intrinsically motivated. Children freely choose the theme of play. Certainly, adults can facilitate and provide props for play, but children should direct the course of play. For example, blocks, playground equipment, manipulatives (such as puzzles, pegboards,lacing beads), magnifying glasses, books, art supplies, woodworking tools, dress-up clothes, and other materials to use in dramatic play are just a few items you would see in a high-quality early childhood classroom to encourage playful learning. When children have access to these and are offered large blocks of uninterrupted time they will use their imagination to learn about themselves and their world. Children do not expect to nor need to be rewarded for play. Play is the reward.

2. Playful learning is active. They are using cognitive, language, and motor skills as they engage in social interaction. Active play can also be solitary. A child building a block tower is planning, grasping, choosing, and balancing. Children experiment, and if given sufficient time, will explore and investigate to see what they can do with materials. We have all seen a child prefer the box to the toy. A box can become a fort, spaceship, or cave. The potentials are limitless.

3. Play is rule-bound. Children determine the rules of their play. Sometimes these are stated, and sometimes they are implied. For example, the child playing the sick patient knows that the rule is to be still and quiet. The other children would certainly remind her if she broke character. Children also learn playing a game involves following rules. If you have ever played a game with a three-year-old, you know the rules are ‘I win, you lose’ and are constantly changing so the child emerges victorious. Older children accept games have rules and are ready for board games and team sports.

4. Playful learning is symbolic, meaningful and transformational. Using props for play, children reenact previous experiences and explore adult roles. A recent trip to a restaurant might encourage a dramatic play scene with a customer, waiter and chef. Each has a unique and important role. A piece of paper with—or without —the words and pictures of a plate of spaghetti, taco and hamburger becomes a menu. The waiter scribbles something on a pad of paper to take to the chef who fills a plate with the order. The waiter returns with a plastic plate and a spoon for the hungry diner who uses the spoon to eat the food.

Children actually need very few, and sometimes zero, props when they play. Perhaps the most amazing thing about young children is their boundless imagination. Open-ended materials, such as a plate and spoon, leave the possibilities endless. Plastic or wooden pretend food only limits what children can conceive. A stick becomes a sword to slay dragons, a spoon to stir a cauldron or a pony to ride. The stick, an endless source of pretend play, was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 2008. Sticks are free and readily available!

5. Playful learning is fun. Children’s play is a pure, pleasurable experience. The very definition of play is to “engage in activity for enjoyment rather than a serious or practical purpose” ( Play makes children happy.

Children’s desire to jump rope, climb trees and play tag is essential for development. The benefits of play are endless. During play, children learn to problem solve, practice language and social skills, and control their impulses and emotions. These are the skills they will need to thrive. The P21 Partnership for 21st Century Learning encourage all types of play within the learning environment—dramatic, constructive, creative, physical and cooperative play as children acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to thrive in an ever-changing world.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC, 1986) and the Association for Childhood Education International (ACEI, 2005) are respected early childhood education professional organizations and both recognize the need for children to play and affirm the essential role of playful learning in healthy development (Copple & Bredekamp, 2009; Isenberg & Farley, 2002). While our profession acknowledges and promotes playful learning as an integral role in child development, we have not communicated this message to stakeholders who make decisions that impact our classrooms and communities.

As a profession, we have done a poor job of expressing what we know to be the best vehicle for learning and we must do a better job of defining and defending play. What a highly qualified early childhood educator observes when they see children playing is not necessarily what someone outside the field might observe. When preschoolers are playing ‘rescue heroes’ some might say, “Oh, look, they’re having fun!” while a seasoned professional would notice children using cognitive skills in planning the scenario, language skills to convince the others to take on certain roles (not everyone can be the bus driver!), motor skills as they run around the playground or climb equipment, and the self-regulation skills necessary to stay in character and participate in play. Imagine the challenge facing the four-year-old waiting to be rescued by heroes on the playground… patiently lying motionless, not speaking, not moving. These actions go against everything a child wants to do, but they do these things because this is what the play scenario requires and children enjoy playing. And, it is through playful learning that children acquire the skills needed to be successful in school and in life.

Learning is not an essential characteristic of play, but a glorious byproduct. During self-directed playful learning, children think critically, solve problems, and develop memory. Do you remember being born? Egad! Let’s hope not! Just as children learn to walk and talk, they learn to remember. Play is a wonderful vehicle for developing memory. Watch a two-year-old give a doll a bath. Most likely, he’ll just dump it in the basin. A four-year-old will remove the doll’s clothes, wash the doll, and dry it with a towel. The older child has most likely experienced five hundred more baths than the younger child and remembers the sequence. She also remembers lunch is after story time, so she doesn’t cry when she feels hungry because she knows it will soon be time to eat. And, her block tower will fall if she doesn’t build a supportive base. By the way, we all experience infantile amnesia, which is why—thankfully!—you do not remember being born. Neuroscientists tell us during play, brain connections are pruning or taking root to support healthy development.

Children move through periods or stages as they grow from infants to adults. For example, infants are egocentric (self-centered) for survival. They cry when they are hungry, even at the most inconvenient times. As children grow older, they begin to realize others can have a different perspective and the world does not revolve around them. Then they are able to develop empathy. Children experience similar growth in ages and stages for all developmental domains—physical, intellectual, emotional, and self-help. As they grow and develop, they benefit from guided play, teachers facilitate play intentionally by introducing props or materials to encourage mastery of specific knowledge or skills.

For example, in my preschool classroom I often used quality children’s literature as the focus of a unit or theme. Eric Carle’s classic, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, was useful to teach basic concepts, including counting and the days of the week. I included this in my spring curriculum. Touches of the theme—caterpillars—could be seen throughout the classroom. In the library, both fiction and non-fiction, were found on the shelves. Often, children ‘wrote’ their own story based on the theme, changing the beginning, middle or end. These were frequently one of the most read in the class library. Magnifying glasses and butterfly specimens could be found in the discovery center, alongside paper, clipboards and pencils to record data. Children were encouraged to move like caterpillars or butterflies during gross motor lab. Colorful tissue paper was added to the art center for creating collages. Playing with felt cutouts or puppets allowed children to retell the story or create their own. Other examples of guided play included suggesting a child count as they are bouncing a ball, create a menu for their pretend restaurant or record the different shapes of leaves in the class garden. During guided play, teachers look for opportunities, ask plenty of questions, and offer additional information.

Families would never allow schools to eliminate math or reading classes, but they have remained silent as academic demands increase and time to engage in play decrease. The last 15 years have seen an increase in the rally cry for a return to playful learning to our classrooms, playgrounds, parks and neighborhoods. Texas Christian University professor Dr. Debbie Rhea has been studying the effect of increasing recess time in several elementary schools. Through the LiiNK Project (Clark & Rhea, 2017), students play outdoors four times each day. The results are amazing! In the classroom, children are focused, better behaved, and academic performance has improved.

The next time you see young children playing, observe them through the lens of an early childhood educator. During playful learning and guided play children are practicing language skills, sorting out conflicts, mastering motor movements, and controlling their emotions and behaviors as they interact, negotiate, and compromise with others. Play is essential to healthy growth and development. For young children, play is not a distraction from learning, it is a vital component of it.

Dr. Karen Walker is an author and frequent presenter on early childhood education. A native and current North Texan, she commutes to Natchitoches, LA where she is an assistant professor at Northwestern State University.

This article is published in partnership with the Texas Association for the Education of Young
Children (TXAEYC). Learn more at

Instructional Leader, November 2018, Vol 31, No 6

Copyright © 2018 by the Texas Elementary Principals and Supervisors Association. No part of articles in TEPSA publications or on the website may be reproduced in any medium without the permission of the Texas Elementary Principals and Supervisors Association.

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