All Woman

The importance of play

By Doneisha BURKE

Monday, September 03, 2012    

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IN the life of a child, play is essential to the development of their cognitive, physical, social and emotional well-being. Play is also an essential part of their education; as a child engages in play he/she is also learning about themselves, others and their environment.

Children play primarily because of the pleasure they derive from it, however, by engaging in play, imagination, creativity, problem solving, perceptual-motor abilities and language skills are also being developed. Play tends to be most common during childhood when children’s knowledge of self, comprehension of verbal and non-verbal communication, and understanding of the physical and social worlds are expanding dramatically.

Research indicates that children learn best in an environment which allows them to explore, discover, and play. Whether within the home setting, at daycare or in school, it is important that adults understand the different types of play children engage in so as to construct an environment which allows children to reap all the benefits that can be gained from play. The different types of play include:

Discovery play: This type of play allows children to explore and find out things; texture, colour, size, shape; how things are made; the different ways they can be used; and how they can become damaged. This type of play is about trying out new things with tentative, cautious, excited curiosity.

Social play: This takes place when children play together. This type of play may also be parallel, that is, playing beside other children but remaining engrossed in one’s own activity. Regardless of whether the play is parallel or involved, children learn about sharing, co-operation, negotiating, how to be around others, and how to form and maintain friendships, among other things.

Manipulative play: This type of play involves skilful use of the hands. It also allows the brain, eyes and hands to co-ordinate. It also helps to develop fine and gross motor skills because as children continue to develop they begin to use different parts of their bodies as they play. Babies playing with rattles, stuffed toys and other objects, for instance, are engaging in manipulative play. Later on, the use of blocks, play dough and other manipulatives will prove beneficial in engaging a child in this form of play.

Physical play: Play which involves moving around. Any child who is running, jumping, rolling around, climbing or throwing an object is engaging in physical play. Physical play also acts as a form of exercise and keeps children active and fit.

Creative play: This is the expression of a child’s own unique thoughts and feelings to make something original, for example, an animal using play dough or a house using building blocks. It allows for discovery, the transformation of information, and an element of surprise at how things turn out. Creative play is expressed when a child uses familiar objects and materials in new and unusual ways. This type of play is particularly helpful in developing a child’s cognitive skills and can help to reflect and nurture a child’s emotional health.

Imaginative play: This kind of play is characterised by pretence and fantasy. The child rearranges the world and his/her experiences into the way they would like it to be. Children will pretend to be mommy to their dolls, a cowboy galloping on a mop stick, or engage in a conversation with someone using a banana as their telephone. In this type of play, too, children may engage in imitation of what they see others around them doing. It is therefore very important that adults and other individuals that the child may interact with monitor their activities.

At any one time, a child may be involved in one, some, or all of the play types listed above. As parents and guardians, while ensuring that all precautionary steps are taken, special effort must be made to avoid dominating and restricting child’s play. Instead, parents and guardians should lend support and give special consideration to selecting toys and other materials that meet the interests of children during different stages of growth and development in order to maximise the benefits to be gained through play. Child’s play is more than just fun and games!

Doneisha Burke is a Clinical Psychologist (MSc) and lecturer specialising in child and adolescent issues. She may be contacted at

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