The Power of Play!

Early Childhood Today columnist and early childhood specialist Eric Strickland, Ph.D., reminds us why physical play - indoors and out - is an essential element in every young child's development.

  • Grades: PreK–K

Many of us in early childhood education champion children's right and need to play. We are also well aware of a growing pressure to sacrifice play for academic performance. What can we do to preserve play as a vital part of life for young children? We can begin by communicating to parents and others the importance of play and what it does for children.

Play involves the whole child. Play builds physical skills (such as balance, agility, strength, and coordination), cognitive skills (including language, problem solving, strategizing, and concept development), social skills (sharing, turn-taking, cooperation, and leadership), and the components for emotional well-being (joy, creativity, self-confidence, and so on). It is the fundamental process underlying most of the learning children do before they come to school.

Play takes time to unfold. Deep, meaningful play episodes are not going to occur in 15-minute "recess" periods. Dramatic play, in particular, requires time for children to sort through potential play themes, assume roles, gather props, and set the stage. This does not happen in an adult-led activity but rather through the fluid action and interaction of children as they disconnect from fixed classroom routines and take charge of their own behavior, time, and space. The process cannot be rushed, but it can be helped along by teachers who create an environment which invites children to explore the opportunities play offers in an unhurried way.

Play is critical to the development of healthy, well-rounded, confident children. Play's contribution to development builds not only healthy bodies, but also healthy children: physically, emotionally, socially, and cognitively. Play is the primary process through which children experience and internalize the world around them. When play is viewed as merely a respite from more structured learning experiences, the true value of it is lost.

Looking at the Big Picture

Childhood is a magical time, and play and playfulness create learning experiences that are not always neat, orderly, and easily scheduled. We need to communicate to others that childhood is more than just the process of preparing children for life.

Let's not oversupply our children with "toys" that are so neatly packaged and prepared that children must invest none of themselves in order to make play happen. One recent television commercial built its pitch on a common event in childhood and one that we've all experienced: A little girl spends more time playing with the box than the toy that came in it. The voice-over labels this "priceless." There is a great truth in this observation and in the very behavior that we've all witnessed: The box is often more fun because children can make it do and be whatever they want it to do or be! Many of today's toys, as well as television and video games, don't require children to invest anything of themselves into the play.

Perhaps this is "preaching to the choir"-- but as professionals, we need to help others understand the tremendous value of play. We also need to reassess what we are doing, because we may find ways to improve even when we're on the right track.

Box Play

Here are some suggestions to think of as a starting point based on the simple idea of taking boxes outside. As you try these with children, don't hesitate to branch out Trust your professional judgment and seek input and suggestions from other professionals, who, like you, view children as willing and capable learners who learn best through play and playful interaction.

COLLECT CARDBOARD BOXES OF ALL SIZES. Fill one box with paper plates, bits of foil, plastic lids from coffee cans, wooden spools, and other unbreakable oddities. Take the boxes outside along with paint, brushes, water glue, and other tools and art materials. Then encourage children to use the materials to build their own "vehicles." (This can be an activity on its own, the inspiration for project work, or even the culurination of a unit on exploring transportation.) Let children get messy; let them paint in bold colors and glue, fold, staple, and bend to their hearts' delight.

GIVE THE PROJECT TIME. Allow at least several days so children have time to create and re-create. When the vehicles are all finished, invite children to share their creations and then make charts graphing the colors of their creations, the number of wheels, the kinds of accessories that were added (mirrors and seats, for instance), and whatever else seems "graphable." Make sure children also have time to push each other around on the grass in their vehicles, slide down a hill, stack vehicles, get in them, under them, beside them, and on and on.

ENCOURAGE CHILDREN TO EXPERIMENT. Invite children to use boxes for balancing on a seesaw or stacking and arranging to make cubes or rectangles. Have a "box toss" to see how far boxes can be thrown, and try tossing boxes into hula hoops or over other boxes.

ADD MOTION. Get short sections of one- to two-inch diameter PVC pipe. Show children how to place sections of pipe underneath boxes to serve as wheels. (Pipe will move from the rear of a box to the front as it passes under the vehicles.) If possible, share books that illustrate historical building projects using this technique for moving heavy objects. Let children experiment to see what other things they can move using this method.

DON'T HURRY. Let children have time to play and develop themes. Add elements to inspire creative play, such as empty pizza boxes, empty milk cartons, hoses, cardboard tubes, and small stepladders.

VIDEOTAPE CHILDREN'S PLAY. Share the video at story time and use it as a basis for writing a story together about children's outdoor activity, taking the recorded dialog from children right into the story. Read your story at group time. Make copies for each child and watch the magic as they discover the rudiments of reading as children hear and see their own words set to print.

AND FINALLY... As the boxes finally start coming apart, let children jump over them, jump on them, flatten them out, and even use them to build huge "tents." When they seem to finally have outlived their usefulness, stack them in layers with dirt and leaves, add a cup of worms from a bait store or pet shop, cover them with a large plastic bag, and create a compost area. Check regularly for decomposition and when decomposed, take the rich soil and let children put it into containers and plant seeds! (If you take this far enough, you can talk about the fact that their children could actually create new cardboard boxes from the trees that will grow from the seeds they are planting in their cardboard-- box compost!)

Additional Activities

Beach Ball Gymnastics (for infants age six months and up)

Inflate a beach ball just enough to support a crawling infant's weight. Place the ball on a soft surface and gently hold the infant tummy down on the beach ball. Roll the baby gently forward and backward on her tummy, watching closely for any signs of fear. This kind of activity begins working on vestibular stimulation as a precursor to balance. For an added treat, place an unbreakable mirror on the floor so the baby can see himself as he rolls forward over the "horizon" of the ball. Make sure you cue Baby by saying things like, "Where's Jason?" as you start rolling forward, and then, "There he is!" as you roll far enough forward for him to see himself. If you don't have beach balls, round bolster pillows will do just as well, or you can roll up a comforter or sleeping bag and tie it into a "log" using ribbon or string. Important: Stop immediately if babies show stress by crying or remaining rigid. Make sure you only roll the baby in the direction of an imaginary line passing through the middle of the baby's body lengthwise. Don't roll the baby to the side, as you may lose your grip. And make sure you don't do this activity too soon after feeding!

Scooping (for toddlers and beginning preschoolers)

Collect gallon milk jugs and cut one side and the bottom out to form a "scoop." Help children practice scooping up balls rolled to them on the floor. Use balls of different sizes and weights. Begin slowly, as it will be a real challenge to eye-hand coordination. Watch for children who begin to anticipate where the ball will roll, rather than scooping at it as it rolls past. After repeated practice, accompanied by many "Oooohs" and "Ahhhs" of delight from you, the "anticipators" may be ready to try scooping a plush toy or nerf ball thrown slowly and deliberately to them. Crossing the River (for preschoolers)

Cut out 30 to 50 basic shapes in sets of six-six triangles, six squares, six circles, and so on. (Use felt or vinyl material for repeated use.) Mark two lines about 10 to 15 feet apart using ropes, chalk, or pieces of tape. Randomly place the shapes between the two lines and then challenge children to cross the river by playing Follow the Leader stepping only on the shapes the leader steps on. As a variation, challenge children to cross by jumping from shape to shape as you (or another child) call them out. Important: For children with motor impairments, lay out the basic shapes on a wheelchair- or walker-accessible surface such as asphalt, concrete, or rubber surfacing.

Recycle Relay Racing (for kindergartners)

Collect several clean plastic containers (recyclable). Place the containers in a pile about 30 feet from the starting line. Divide your group into three or more teams and provide a clean trash can or, for "realism," a recycling bin for each team. Ask one child from each team to line up and race to the pile, pick up a recyclable item, and drop it into her team's container. Continue the race until all items are "collected" for recycling. A variation is to send two runners holding the corners of a towel to the pile to "load up" the towel and return with as many as they can carry.

Dr. Eric Strickland has been a Head Start teacher and director head teacher at the Auburn University at Montgomery (Alabama) Child Development Center and associate professor of Elementary and Early Childhood Education at the University of Texas at Arlington. He is now the founder and president of Grounds for Play, a design/build firm that specializes in outdoor play spaces.

Click here to view and download the Developmental Chart Motor SkillsĀ Age by Age (PDF)

  • Subjects:
    Outdoor Activities and Recreation, Health and Safety, Motor Skills, Physical Development
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