When children play they are not as concerned with particular goals or ends as they are with the variety of ways a goal may be achieved. In play, they experiment with possibilities and become more flexible in thinking and problem solving.
When children play their behavior is not literal. Much of what they do stands for something else. They represent their experiences symbolically. Their ability to conceive objects and situations as if they were something else is thought by researchers to contribute to later skill in hypothetical reasoning and the understanding of abstract symbols and logical transformations.
When children play they free themselves from external rules, from the restrictions imposed by adult regulations, and from the realities imposed by time and space. Paradoxically, however children generate rules for their play situations and establish roles and plots. Close study of such play reveals that children's negotiations with one another are complex. They make longer utterances and use more varied vocabulary than in other situations.
When children play with objects they discover what they can do with them. Increasing their own repertoire of behaviors in this way contrasts with the exploration of objects in which they establish what properties the objects have. Both play and exploration, involving on the one hand the familiar and on the other the novel, are essential to children's understanding of the world and of their own powers.
Finally, when children play they are actively engaged. Their attention is not easily distracted. Children who are unable to so involve themselves in play signal that something has gone seriously amiss in their development.
Adults who give serious consideration to these distinctive features of children's play will recognize that play is as essential to the child's all-around development as adequate food and rest. They will understand why those who wrote the United Nations' Convention on Rights of the Child set the right to play parallel to such rights as special protection, adequate nutrition, housing, health care, and education.
Children realize their right to play when the adults around them appreciate and respect their playfulness and provide ample time and space for them to play. Materials and equipment are also important, although they need not be elaborate. The crucial role that parents and. teachers have in responding to and supporting children's play ideas, while not overwhelming them, becomes increasingly evident.
Play, the child's way of coming to terms with personal experience in and knowledge of the physical and social world, is never sufficient in itself. Adults must also provide ever-expanding opportunities for children to learn from their own actions and observations, as well as from being told the nature of the people and of the things that surround them. But it is in play that children come to terms with those realities, comprehend them more, and more effectively create new possibilities for dealing with them.