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Time to Play!

Understand the vital connection between play and learning.


For most parents, children's play is just that — diversion or entertainment. Kids do seem to like it, after all, and their pleasure in devoting hours to play, make-believe, and following their imaginations is usually obvious.

But to think that play matters only in so far as it brings pleasure is to miss the forest for the trees. Play is ultimately about learning. It has its roots in the delights found in the cabinet under the kitchen counter, or the hedgerow around the backyard, or Dad's desk drawer.

And all play is educational play, just as all television is educational television. We may not be happy about the curriculum, but the learning happens just the same. Good stuff, bad stuff, stupid stuff — it all gets played and learned.

All Play Means Something
What Children Learn Through Play
The Symbols of Play

All Play Means Something
The reason children love to play is precisely because it does mean something. They come to it very naturally from the beginning months of their life.

Experts in child development call the first play activities "circular reactions." That's when an infant repeatedly kicks the inside of her crib to get the attached mobile to move, or tosses toys out of the playpen over and over, endlessly fascinated by whatever ruckus ensues.

Later, toddlers move to "fantasy play," recasting personal experiences in symbolic form using toys or dolls. In both forms of play, the reward comes from the action, and repetition of the actions leads to mastery. Of course, the child is learning all the while.

What Children Learn Through Play

• Soft and hard, cold and warm, scratchy or smooth, as they touch and manipulate everything within reach.
• Heavy and light, as they heft and fling things about their world.
• Sour and sweet, as they mouth, suck, and drool their way through everyday life.
• Quiet and loud, pleasing or raucous, as they scream and coo, or rub and smash.
• What works and doesn't work, as they pull and push, fit, stack, and destroy.

One of the most important things young children learn through all this tireless trial and error is how to connect events, feelings, memories, thoughts, and learning together into experience and to file it away in their brains under certain symbols. Miraculously, this all starts to happen well before they have command of spoken language. Simply stated, through play, they learn to symbolize their experience.

The Symbols of Play
Think about it. Their play helps them understand that things can stand for other things — that keys or shoes can stand for "Daddy," that her purse can stand for "Mommy," that a leash can stand for a dog. It is quite amazing, because there is no way we can ever achieve that for our kids. They simply have to sort it out on their own.

How? As a toddler rummages through the bottom of the closet and pulls out a familiar pair of big, old shoes, someone who takes notice of her play will say the word "Daddy," and probably more than once. The toddler pairs them up, hefts their weight, maybe even struggles to put on those size 12s. And the "power" word she hears in this whole scenario is "Daddy." After the memory and pleasure centers in the brain connect with the word heard for this experience, the experience gets filed (pleasantly) under "daddy" or "shoes" or "smelly feet" — probably all three.

But most importantly, she remembers the experience — and soon the play starts to symbolize her experience with any or all of the parts of this scene. Which experience is hard to predict, be it remembering her father when he is gone, classifying pairs of things that belong together, or the raw joy of exploring. But the experience now has some kind of symbol connected to it, thanks to play.

Moreover, she can create new symbols over time. She combines and reshapes old ones, or uses them in novel ways. This capacity to manipulate and change them gives her wonderful new tools for elaborating her own experience and understanding of the world and her place in it. This remarkable capacity is what we call "imagination."
Two-year-old Olivia stands at the pretend kitchen counter, animatedly talking into the plastic banana she is holding up to her ear. This is really a magical scene. Olivia's mind obviously has the theory that talking on the phone is a much larger event than holding an earpiece in the hand. It's social, it's done in the kitchen, it's emotionally interesting, and it means something. All this adds up to such importance that a plastic banana can easily be pressed into service as the imagined portable phone. Yes, she might be missing her mommy right then, or calling her daddy, or making plans to visit grandma. But whatever is happening, it's hers.

From Me, Myself and I: How Children Build Their Sense of Self — 18 to 36 Months by Kyle D. Pruett, M.D. Available wherever books are sold. Copyright © 1999 by Goddard Press, Inc.

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