TEACHABLE MOMENTS: Importance of playing in childhood

Tommy Fairweather
Tommy Fairweather

In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Child’s Play is About More than Games, the authors, Peter Gray and Lenore Skenazy, indicate that children learn much by playing. They told of a research study that found children age nine through 12 spend just a little more than one hour a day playing, mostly indoors. They listed several areas of human skills that will be enhanced by playing games. The purpose of this article is to help you see the importance of encouraging your child to engage in frequent imaginative play from preschool until age 12.

Playing games develops innovation and creativity. The authors indicate that when children are not told what to do by an adult, they have to figure out their own fun activities.  The Bronte children created an imaginary world called the Great Glass Town Confederacy. This time spent in imaginary play became the backbone for the imagination the three sisters used in writing their classic adult books. Many children often make plays that are spin-offs of books they have read or which parents have read to them. Gene Craighead George and her cousins replayed Robin Hood. A recent tribute to Robin Williams detailed how he had lots of little plastic figures and vehicles that he played with in his attic. Evidently, he was left alone a lot and he made up his imaginary world. I can just hear him now talking in a different voice for each of the characters as he built his own scenario, or his making the different sounds for the cars, tanks and planes he played with.

When playing games, either alone or with others, rules created by the player(s) must be followed or everything seems to fall apart. Thus, the players are then developing self-control. When there is a disagreement among the players, each child needs to learn to keep emotions under control. Learning to set up rules that are appropriate means the players often spend more time on planning the play than actually playing. Dr. Deborah J. Leong and Elena Bodrova wrote the article, Assessing and Scaffolding Make-Believe Play that appeared in Young Children, January 2012. In this article they provide a rubric of growth in play so you can identify your child’s progress as a player.

Playing games with others requires the child to pay attention. The intense concentration of the child in imaginary play strengthens the child’s ability to pay attention in other areas of life. 

Practice makes everything better. Even play gets better with practice. Jim Carrey, as a child, would stand in front of a mirror and practice contorting his face to make himself look either funny or grotesque. This practice had an enormous impact when he grew up to become a comedian. William Beebe, creator of the deep sea bathysphere, trained himself to move slowly and quietly through the woods like his hero, the Native American warrior Uncas from The Last of the Mohicans. By the time he was 12, Will was an expert animal tracker.

Managing difficult tasks becomes important when creating make-believe worlds.  Whether it is climbing a tree to be a lookout or gathering materials to build settings, children are often working at the cutting edge of their abilities. They don’t want it to be too easy because they will be bored with the game. If it is too hard, they will often abandon the concept of that “world.”

Playing games helps children learn to solve problems and take responsibility for their actions. They must solve emotional, social, physical or intellectual problems. This often starts in the first stage of play where the children plan what they will play. They have to consider the elements of play: roles, setting, props and what will happen and who will be responsible for which parts of the play. Once these are established, play begins.

Hopefully, this article will stimulate you to make sure your child has plenty of time, space and access to materials for imaginative play. Maybe you can capture the play on video to enjoy later when they grow up and have children.

Tommy Fairweather is a retired Walton County teacher and educational consultant who lives in Destin.