Our children from their earliest years must take part in all the more lawful forms of play, for if they are not surrounded with such an atmosphere they can never grow up to be well conducted and virtuous citizens.

The study of play has a long history. From Plato to Kant, from Froebel to Piaget, philosophers, historians, biologists, psychologists, and educators have studied this ubiquitous behavior to understand how and why we play. Even animals play. This fact alone leads researchers like Robert Fagan,2 a leader in the study of animal play, to speculate that play must have some adaptive value given the sheer perilousness and energy cost to growing individuals. Researchers suggest that play is a central ingredient in learning, allowing children to imitate adult behaviors, practice motor skills, process emotional events, and learn much about their world. One thing play is not, is frivolous. Recent research confirms what Piaget3 always knew, that “play is the work of childhood.” Both free play and guided play are essential for the development of academic skills.

Whether play is with objects, involves fantasy and make believe, or centers on physical activity, researchers generally agree that from the child’s point of view, eight features characterize ordinary play. Play is (a) pleasurable and enjoyable, (b) has no extrinsic goals, (c) is spontaneous, (d) involves active engagement, (e) is generally engrossing, (f) often has a private reality, (g) is nonliteral, and (h) can contain a certain element of make-believe.8, 5, 9 Even these criteria for judging play have some fuzzy boundaries.

Academically, then, play is related to reading and math as well as to the important learning processes that feed these competencies. More specifically, there are direct studies connecting play to literacy and language, and to mathematics. By way of example, 4-year-olds’ play—in the form of rhyming games, making shopping lists, and “reading” story books to stuffed animals—predicts both language and reading readiness.12 Research suggests that children demonstrate their most advanced language skills during play, and that these language skills are strongly related to emergent literacy.

By: Jasmin N. Barbosa, Tomas Pinpin Memorial Elem School

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