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The Role Of Play In Child’s Development

The Role Of Play In Child’s Development


(By Antonio Mulatu)

Play is such an accepted part of child life that few people stop to consider how important its role is. Far too often, parents and teachers regard play as a ‘waste of time’. They do not realize that too little play deprives the child of many of the learning opportunities essential to wholesome development”

The right to play emanates from the concept of play. Play is like an elephant, everyone knows it but its definition dodges many. Hurlock defines play as any activity engaged in for the enjoyment it gives, without consideration of its end result. Catherine Garvey goes further and identifies a number of elements that identify an activity as play; she states that play is something that; 1) is engaged in simply for pleasure 2) has no purpose other than itself 3) players choose to do 4)requires players to be ‘actively engaged’ in it 5) relates to other areas of life.

The above definitions show that play is done out of the child’s free will. It is not forced but it is voluntary. This is what distinguishes it from work for the two concepts are closely interrelated. All activities that can be regarded as work can in the same vein are regarded as play. Whether an activity is to be regarded as play or work depends on the individual’s attitude towards it rather than on the activities. Therefore, activities like digging can be regarded either as play or work. Any activity that is directed toward an end other than enjoyment cannot be rightly called play. Therefore what is play is subjective to the particular individual. To children, play means doing things they want to do while work means doing things they have to do. Because of its nature, adults and bright children respect work more than they respect play. They regard play as useless and easy. Work on the other hand is regarded as useful and serious.

Play is of two types; active and passive play. In active play, the child is actively using his/her body while in passive play; the child basically uses the mind.

There are many different modes of play; there is free, spontaneous play which is play without regulations and rules. It is usually for very young children and solitary. There is dramatic play
which involves games of illusion. There is day dreaming which is a form of mental play where the child plays the hero in an imagined world. There is constructive play which is usually for children between 5 and 6 years. Here they come up with new ideas and develop new things. There is music, games and sports, reading, watching movies, listening to radio and watching TV.

That is the concept of play, which is so often neglected, yet it is very important to children. It occupies much of an average child’s childhood. According to Dane E. Papalia and Sally Wendkos Olds, “play transcends all levels of a child’s life. It engages the emotions, the intellect, the culture, the behavior”. It cannot be underestimated.

The role of play in a child’s development

Play satisfies many needs in a child’s life; the need to be stimulated and diverted, the need to express natural exuberance, the need to experience change for its own sake, to satisfy curiosity, to explore and to experiment within a risk free condition”

Piaget regards play as a way to learn about new and complex objects, a way to consolidate and enlarge concepts and skills and a way to integrate thinking with actions. Moreover, Hurlock classifies the roles of play in child development into five major ones. ; These are the physical value, the therapeutic value, the educational value, the social value, and the moral value.

1. The physical role

It is obvious that active play is essential for muscular development. Muscular development is key to a child’s physical well being and adaptability to the child’s environment. By engaging in running, mountain climbing, stone collection and swimming, the child develops their muscles.

Apart from this, play is also an outlet for extra fat. It is exercising in a joking manner. The effect is the same. Physically still, play helps a child to have a vent for extra energy. Extra energy is dangerous for if it is pent up, it makes the child tense, nervous and irritable. These are some of the physical values of play. Therefore its role in physical development is great.

2. The therapeutic role;

This is less obvious than the physical role. Play is a catharsis for the elimination of pent up energy. This pent up energy as shown above is dangerous.

Secondly, play helps a child to express their emotions freely in a non controlled environment. This is why play therapy is gaining first as mode of managing pediatric illnesses. According Axline “Play therapy is based upon the fact that play is the child’s natural medium of expression. It is an opportunity which is given to the child to ‘play out’ his feelings and problems…”

The other reason why play therapy is gaining is because play is an outlet for needs and desires that cannot be otherwise met. Therefore a child who wants to be like her mother will have a chance to act so during play. This will ease her tensions and fulfill her desires.

3. The educational role

It is quite obvious that children learn much more during play than during work-whether class work or otherwise. Play helps children to develop skills in identification, operation and use. This is because play fully captures the child’s attention. According to Axline, “in play the child learns about himself and others and about his relationships with them. He learns about his abilities and how they compare with the abilities of others, and he is thus enabled to establish a clearer and more realistic concept of himself”. Most importantly, play is experimentation without taking full responsibility. Therefore, the educational value of play should never be underestimated.

4. The social role

A child usually gets to learn of what is acceptable and what is not during play. Play is usually done in a group; therefore the child learns to distinguish right from wrong. It learns to give and take. Play also reduces tension in a home. This is so since the children are kept preoccupied with play thus giving breathing space to the parents.

5. The moral role    

Through play, a child learns what the whole group considers right and moral. It learns to distinguish between wrong and right. According to Burton, through play a child learns that he must be fair, honest, truthful, self controlled and a good loser if he is to be acceptable.

In conclusion the above are the key roles of play to child development. Therefore play is part and partial of child development. Every child deserves it for proper development.


Axline V.M; Observing children at play; Teach. Coll. Rec. 195

Axline V.M; Play therapy, Boston; Houghton Mifflin, 1947

Burton D.L, Comic books; a teachers’ analysis, elementary School Journal, 1955

Dane E. Papalia and Sally Wendkos Olds, Human development; pp 156

Garvey, Catherine; Play, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1977 quoted in Grace Craig J, Human development, 3rd Ed, Prentice-Hall Inc, New Jersey, 1983

Hullock, Elizabeth B.  Phd: Child development, 4th Ed, McGraw Hill, New York, 1964

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