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Let’s Get to Work…and Play!

July 26, 2022
Play is a child's work. 
~Dr. Donna Housman

Play is the Key to Children's Socialization, Learning, and Brain Development

Happy Summertime! We all wait for this special season to kick-back, relax and spend more time with the children in our lives. To many, it may seem like it’s just one big continuation of what young children do most–play. However, child’s play is much more than meets the eye–it’s key to their socialization, learning and brain development.

The “COVID Generation,” a.k.a. “Gen C,” needs this play now more than ever due to social isolation, disruption and long-term stress. Consistent social experiences are crucial to children’s emotional intelligence and development. 

Children Learn About Emotions Through Play

It’s through play with peers that children learn about their own emotions and those of others. How can children navigate everyday social routines in the midst of a pandemic where there is no routine? How can we support children in dealing with all of the disruption and stress? Let’s engage in the power of play! 

Play is at the heart of early childhood, as natural as breathing. When we see a group of children at play, it may just look like fun. But in reality, there is significant learning happening. Play and learning are interrelated. Play gives children the space to process formal instruction, opens their brains to creativity, provides problem-solving opportunities, and gives children independence. Play fuels the creativity from which learning thrives.

Play allows children to better understand the world and how they fit in it. They can build relationships, interact with others, and learn about their pals. They can start to understand and appropriately express their emotions while learning to understand the emotions of others and build empathy. Also, play is a positive, constructive outlet that helps manage stress–a lesson we could all learn! 

Children Learn Independency and Agency Through Play

Children at play are discovering their independence and their sense of agency in the ability to think, speak and act for themselves. Most importantly, playtime provokes important conversations about big feelings and real-life events while stoking BIG dreams.

When children are playing, children are in charge! They get to be the producer, the director, the writer and decide among themselves where their story goes. Our role is to keep them safe, but to leave them space to do their own thinking and problem solving. 

As they play, they can vocalize when they don’t like what is happening or things are not going the way they want and they can change the story, which provides a sense of control. This autonomy allows them to develop a positive sense of self and build healthy self-esteem–key skills of self-regulation and impulse control. 

The magical aspect of imaginative play is that it is not about having answers. From birth, babies communicate through engaging in playful interactions, such as peek-a-boo, patty-cake, silly faces, and fun noises–all ways of strengthening social bonds, trust, and building children’s brain circuits. These playful interactions help to form the emotional scaffolding necessary for healthy development. 

Why is play important for learning, and how do we foster that learning? The opportunity to play provides the “brain breaks” children need to process and put their formal learning into action. While play is not the only important aspect of early childhood learning, it is essential and fosters fundamental skills that impact a number of educational outcomes for children that more formal, instructor-directed learning does not.  

With the guidance of parents, caregivers and educators extending children’s play, children can establish a solid foundation of independence and self-control. They gain the knowledge that their ideas are important, and they will share with you what they discovered. 

Creative play helps children develop and strengthen their emotional, cognitive and social worlds while fostering problem-solving, perspective-taking, empathy, compassion, and resilience. They will learn to work out stressful situations and bring them to a successful conclusion. Summertime is a time of tremendous fun – and tremendous growth. 

Let’s play!


To read more about the importance of play, see Dr. Housman's recent article for Exchange Magazine.


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