PLAY: ESSENTIAL FOR ALL CHILDREN
A Position Paper of the Association for Childhood Education
Joan Packer Isenberg and Nancy Quisenberry
Children are growing up in a rapidly changing
world characterized by dramatic shifts in what all children are expected to know
and be able to do. Higher and tougher standards of learning for all populations
of students are focusing on a narrow view of learning. Consequently, students
have less time and opportunity to play than did children of previous
generations. Few would disagree that the primary goal of education is student
learning and that all educators, families, and policymakers bear the
responsibility of making learning accessible to all children. Decades of
research has documented that play has a crucial role in the optimal growth,
learning, and development of children from infancy through adolescence. Yet,
this need is being challenged, and so children's right to play must be defended
by all adults, especially educators and parents. The time has come to advocate
strongly in support of play for all children.
The Association for Childhood Education International (ACEI) recognizes the need
for children of all ages to play and affirms the essential role of play in
children's lives. ACEI believes that as today's children continue to experience
pressure to succeed in all areas, the necessity for play becomes even more
critical. ACEI supports all adults who respect, understand, and advocate
legitimizing play as an essential pathway to learning for all populations of
children. When working with children, adults should use their knowledge about
play to guide their practice.
The 1988 ACEI position statement on play,
"Play: A Necessity for All Children" (ACEI/Isenberg & Quisenberry, 1988),
has been widely cited and continues to influence the thinking of educators.
Unfortunately, the issues presented in 1988 remain unresolved today. The
fundamental beliefs, guiding principles, and recommended practices in this
position paper are similar to those in the 1988 paper, and continue to be rooted
in the latest research, theory, and exemplary practice. We first discuss ACEI's
beliefs about play and cite the supporting research and theory. Then, we discuss
the guiding principles and practices for play experiences. Finally, we present
ACEI's call to action on play.
ACEI believes that play--a dynamic,
active, and constructive behavior--is an essential and integral part of all
children's healthy growth, development, and learning across all ages, domains,
Play is a dynamic process that develops and changes as it
becomes increasingly more varied and complex. It is considered a key facilitator
for learning and development across domains, and reflects the social and
cultural contexts in which children live (Christie, 2001; Fromberg, 1998, 2002;
Hughes, 1999, in press).
Theorists, regardless of their orientation,
concur that play occupies a central role in children's lives. They also suggest
that the absence of play is an obstacle to the development of healthy and
creative individuals. Psychoanalysts believe that play is necessary for
mastering emotional traumas or disturbances; psychosocialists believe it
is necessary for ego mastery and learning to live with everyday experiences;
constructivists believe it is necessary for cognitive growth;
maturationists believe it is necessary for competence building and for
socializing functions in all cultures of the world; and neuroscientists
believe it is necessary for emotional and physical health, motivation, and
love of learning.
Moreover, findings from the recent explosion of
research on the brain and learning also delineate the importance of play
(Jensen, 2000, 2001; Shore, 1997). We know that active brains make permanent
neurological connections critical to learning; inactive brains do not make the
necessary permanent neurological connections. Research on the brain demonstrates
that play is a scaffold for development, a vehicle for increasing neural
structures, and a means by which all children practice skills they will need in
later life. This research raises new questions for those who view play as a
trivial, simple, frivolous, unimportant, and purposeless behavior (Christie,
2001; Frost, Wortham, & Reifel, 2001; Shore, 1997) and challenges them to
recognize play for what it is--a serious behavior that has a powerful influence
on learning. Such an attitude shift could increase the level of respect accorded
to currently undervalued activities such as recess, physical education, the
arts, and rich personal adult/child interactions.
A body of research on
socio-cultural variations on play exists, but is less robust. We know that
socio-cultural variations in play depend not only upon the attitudes of parents,
teachers, and society in general, but also on such variables as the amount of
play space and time that is available to children (Roopnarine, Lasker, Sacks,
& Stores, 1998). Child development experts have been far less successful in
understanding the contexts within which play occurs (Roopnarine, Shin, Donovan,
& Suppal, 2000).
Both theorists and researchers do concur upon a
common set of characteristics that distinguish play behaviors from nonplay
behaviors for children across all ages, domains, and cultures. These unique
features include behaviors that are: 1) intrinsically motivated and
self-initiated, 2) process oriented, 3) non-literal and pleasurable, 4)
exploratory and active, and 5) rule-governed (Fromberg, 1998, 2002; Garvey,
1990; Johnson, Christie, & Yawkey, 1999; Rubin, Fein, & Vandenberg,
1983). These features make play both a process and a product. As a
process, play facilitates individual understanding of skills, concepts,
and dispositions; as a product, play provides the vehicle for children to
demonstrate their understanding of skills, concepts, and dispositions (Fromberg,
ACEI believes that play enhances learning and development
for children of all ages, cultures, and domains.
To best understand the
relationship of play to learning and development, teachers must be knowledgeable
about the research base and typical characteristics that describe how play
enhances all children's learning and development. From this knowledge base,
teachers will be able to argue convincingly and make appropriate decisions about
providing adequate opportunities and time for all children to play (Christie,
2001; Fromberg, 1998, 2002; Frost et al., 2001; Johnson et al., 1999; Wolery
& McWilliams, 1998).
Physical Development. Because play
often involves physical activity, it is closely related to the development and
refinement of children's gross and fine motor skills and their body awareness.
As children vigorously and joyfully use their bodies in physical exercise, they
simultaneously refine and develop skills that enable them to feel confident,
secure, and self-assured. In societies where children experience pressure to
succeed in all areas, confidence and competence are essential (Berk, 2002;
Fromberg, 2002; Frost et al., 2001; Holmes & Geiger, 2002; McCune &
Zanes, 2001; Murata & Maeda, 2002; Santrock, 2003).
Emotional Development. As social organisms, humans have a basic need to
belong to and feel part of a group and to learn how to live and work in groups
with different compositions and for different purposes. Play serves several
functions in satisfying these needs and developing these social and emotional
life skills. For example, children of all ages need to be socialized as
contributing members of their respective cultures. Numerous studies (Creasey,
Jarvis, & Berk, 1998; Erikson, 1963; Goleman, 1995; Piaget, 1962; Rubin
& Howe, 1986; Rubin, Maioni, & Hormung, 1976; Rubin, Watson, &
Jambor, 1978; Sutton-Smith, 1997; Vygotsky, 1978) indicate that play with others
gives children the opportunity to match their behavior with others and to take
into account viewpoints that differ from their own. Thus, play provides the rich
experience children need to learn social skills; become sensitive to others'
needs and values; handle exclusion and dominance; manage their emotions; learn
self-control; and share power, space, and ideas with others. At all levels of
development, play enables children to feel comfortable and in control of their
feelings by: 1) allowing the expression of unacceptable feelings in acceptable
ways and 2) providing the opportunity to work through conflicting
Cognitive Development. Evidence also suggests a
strong relationship between play and cognitive development. Studies indicate a
positive relationship between play and student learning (Kumar & Harizuka,
1998; Lieberman, 1977). They identify improvements to attention, planning
skills, and attitudes (McCune & Zanes, 2001; Smilansky & Shefatya, 1990;
Sylva, Bruner, & Genova, 1976); creativity and divergent thinking (Dansky,
1980; Holmes & Geiger, 2002; Pepler, 1982; Sutton-Smith, 1997);
perspective-taking (Burns & Brainerd, 1979); memory (Jensen, 1999, 2000;
Saltz, Dixon, & Johnson, 1977); and language development (Clawson, 2002;
Creasey, Jarvis, & Berk, 1998; Gardner, 1993; Howes, Droege, & Matheson,
ACEI believes that the forms and functions of children's play
must be considered in the context of our knowledge about age-related play
behaviors. Knowledge about how children play at different ages should guide the
practice of all adults who work with children.
While some consider play
to be trivial and simple, and even a waste of time, "play is not wasted time but
rather time spent building new knowledge from previous experience" (Bruner,
1972, cited in Harris, 1986, p. 263; Piaget, 1962). Information about typical
age-related play behaviors at different ages provides a useful framework for
understanding different forms of children's play and for providing environments
that will facilitate those forms.
Nursery educators long have recognized
the centrality of play to children's development and have provided opportunities
for both structured and spontaneous play. Both theory and research supports such
a relationship. Play is not only children's unique way of learning about their
world, but also their way of learning about themselves and how they fit into
their world, building on familiar knowledge and deepening their understanding
through the recurring cycle of learning that is essential to what all children
can understand and do (Erikson, 1963; Fromberg, 1998, 2002; Frost et al., 2001;
Johnson et al., 1999; Monighan-Nourot & Van Hoorn, 1991; Piaget,
Infants and toddlers engage in activities that stimulate their
senses and develop motor skills. They actively explore objects and their own
capabilities through simple non goal-oriented and repetitious play. While
infants play alone or with playthings, toddlers play beside other children,
although not with them. They are sometimes within speaking distance of others
but make little or no effort to communicate. Two children playing with similar
toys may pursue unrelated activities. They concentrate on their own needs,
reflecting egocentric behavior, and have no concept of rules (Parten, 1932;
Piaget, 1962). Such play contributes to infants' and toddlers' growing ability
to pay attention and to the development of physical skills, social competence,
and intellectual growth (McCune & Zanes, 2001).
play with other children, talk about common activities, and borrow and loan
toys. They have no explicit goals, nor do they make an effort to establish rules
(Parten, 1932; Piaget, 1962). Older preschoolers can play together and help each
other in an activity that produces some material or product or pursues some
goal. Preschool children like to build and create with objects, take on roles,
and use props to replace an original object. They playfully re-enact events and
change details to match personal needs and desires. Although they may imitate
codified rules, their concepts of rules are individual and they make no attempt
to win. Through play, preschoolers develop and refine motor skills, experience
the joy of mastery, and develop and use basic academic skills such as counting,
reading, and writing.
In the primary grades, children play formal and
informal games with their peers (e.g., hopscotch; jump rope; board, card, and
computer games). This kind of play enhances their coordination and physical
prowess, refines their social skills, and builds concepts such as cooperation
and competition, and enables them to demonstrate to themselves and to others
their skills, talents, and abilities (Eifermann, 1971; Goleman, 1995; Kumar
& Harizuka, 1998; McCune & Zanes, 2001). They like to explore and to
create their own games. Through riddles, number games, and secret codes and
messages, children practice and demonstrate their growing understanding of word
meanings, letter meanings, and numbers.
In later childhood and early
adolescence, children's play is more organized and structured as their passion
for orderly thinking manifests itself through games with rules and in organized
sports. Winning becomes important as they begin to internalize that winning
means following the rules. This is the age when team sports become important. As
children grow in social awareness, their focus moves from the family and school
to the peer group. Now they can channel their energies into specialized clubs,
youth groups, volunteer activities, and team sports. Through role taking and
play in such organizations, they better understand how they will fit into the
significance and structure of their social, political, and economic systems
(Hughes, 1999; Manning, 2002).
ACEI believes that play is a powerful,
natural behavior contributing to children's learning and development and that no
program of adult instruction can substitute for children's own observations,
activities, and direct knowledge.
A major way children take ownership of
new information is by playing with it. Learning requires an interactive balance
of gaining the facts and skills required by the culture and making information
one's own. This interactive cycle helps children understand their world in an
intrinsically motivating fashion (Fromberg, 2002; McCune & Zanes, 2001;
Wolery & McWilliams, 1998).
Active play fosters personal meaning.
When children perceive events as personally relevant, their neural connections
proliferate and situations, ideas, and skills become part of their long-term
memory. Meaningless concepts, such as isolated facts, are irrelevant and
typically will not become part of long-term memory (Fromberg,
Moreover, play and play contexts support intrinsic motivation that
is driven by positive emotions (Jensen, 1999). Positive emotions, such as
curiosity, generally improve motivation and facilitate learning and performance
by focusing a learner's attention on the task; negative emotions, such as
anxiety, panic, threats, and stress, generally detract from motivation
(Santrock, 2003). Curiosity, flexible and insightful thinking, and creativity
are major indicators of the learner's intrinsic motivation to learn, which is in
large part a function of meeting basic needs to be competent and to exercise
personal control. Because play is intrinsically motivating, learners perceive it
to be interesting, personally relevant, meaningful, and appropriate in terms of
their abilities and their expectations of success (Johnson et al., 1999;
Play-based learning activities provide multiple ways for
children to learn a variety of different skills and concepts. They allow
children the opportunities to learn relevant skills and feel competent about
their ability to learn. When children are concerned about their competence or
adequacy, they cannot make sense of their learning because emotions drive
attention, create meaning, and forge their own memory pathways (Goleman, 1995).
Children are more likely to feel successful when they can experience active,
meaningful learning; use complex, challenging, and varied materials; learn in a
safe, nonthreatening environment; and receive accurate and timely feedback
(Fromberg, 1998, 2002; Isenberg & Jalongo, 2000; Jensen, 1999).
sum, ACEI believes that children will "master their experiences through
continual play, which is actually the most intensive and fruitful learning in
their whole life cycle" (Frank, 1968, p. 435). Given the appropriate materials,
learning environment, feedback, and challenge, teachers can capitalize on the
power of play by addressing the following guiding principles and
GUIDING PRINCIPLES AND PRACTICES
the position that adequate and appropriate play experiences provide children
with opportunities for developing mastery of and competence with cognitive,
social/emotional, and physical skills. Furthermore, adults have a crucial role
in carefully structuring and planning the use of such materials in the
curriculum and learning environment. Therefore, ACEI urgently recommends that
the following principles and best practices be adopted to ensure all children's
optimal learning and development.
We must provide appropriate play
activities and experiences for all children.
Children's play depends
largely upon the play materials, equipment, and role models available to them.
Early exposure to appropriate play activities and materials is important and
provides a sound basis for development (Fromberg, 2002; Frost et al., 2001;
Hughes, 1999, in press; Isenberg & Jalongo, 2000; Johnson et al., 1999;
Children need early exposure to both visual and auditory
stimuli (Murata & Maeda, 2002). Young children are interested in colors,
sizes, shapes, and sounds and enjoy working with table toys that encourage
matching, ordering, and comparing. Play with such equipment stimulates
vocabulary and concept building. Young children play with these materials by
grouping them according to size, color, form, and texture. They can recognize
things that do not belong to a group. Older children group by function (Frost et
al., 2001; Johnson et al., 1999; Moyer, 1995).
Clay, sand, and mud give
children of all ages opportunities to explore changes in form as they mold the
substance (Jenson & Bullard, 2002; Langstaff & Sproul, 1979). Adding
water enables the younger child to observe changes in the substance and the
older child to build and form more complex shapes. Ample opportunity to explore
and experiment with these substances should be provided.
interested in materials that help them understand spatial concepts, such as
puzzles and blocks. In addition, cups, pans, and cans can be filled with sand or
water to help develop a sense of volume. Large blocks are first used to lay out
flat roads or outline buildings. Later, children fill in the spaces and, by
primary age, build to great heights. Blocks with special pieces, such as tunnels
or steeples, allow imagination to flourish. Sturdy transportation vehicles add
realism and encourage dramatic play that develops concepts of distance and
Imitative play is important to children's development. Children
need opportunities to act and dress up like people they know. Equipment that
encourages such play includes housekeeping furniture, dolls, dress-up clothes,
utensils, blocks, vehicles, carpentry equipment, and musical instruments.
Freedom to use various paints, clay, water, and other art materials encourages
imitation as well as conversation and creative expression of ideas and
understandings (Fromberg, 2002; Johnson et al., 1999; Monighan-Nourot & Van
Hoorn, 1991; Moyer, 1995).
To build a broader basis for childrens
expression through play, educators should provide access to information and
ideas that go beyond children's immediate environment. A good collection of
children's books is essential. Field trips and media also provide play
experiences that are unavailable in the immediate environment.
age children need plenty of opportunity to move and to engage in recreational
activities such as recess, classroom breaks, group games, and physical
education. Brain research "confirms that physical activity--moving, stretching,
walking--can actually enhance the learning process" (Jensen, 2000, p. 34). Group
games also can provide opportunities to consolidate social and cognitive skills.
On the playground or in the gym, games that require skill with balls, ropes,
running, and jumping may be organized into relays or exercises. These
recreational activities are a powerful way to influence learning (Jensen, 1999,
In later childhood and early adolescence, children enjoy
developing their skills through team and individual sports, games with
increasingly more complex rules, and specialized club and youth activities. Such
group endeavors provide them with an arena for refining their social,
decision-making, and problem-solving skills. It is important to remember that
adults serve crucial roles as coaches and providers of positive feedback
(Hughes, 1999; McCune & Zanes, 2001).
We must provide safe and
inviting environments for all children.
All children need safe and
inviting environments in which to play. Materials and equipment that are safe,
durable, and take into consideration the age, ability, and cultural background
of the children should be selected (Moyer, 1995; Murata & Maeda, 2002).
Culturally reflective materials help children understand the social and ethnic
values of their communities. Stereotypes must be avoided in all materials,
Equipment and toys that can be adapted to different age
and ability levels will be more useful, even in a classroom for one age, since
developmental differences across one year can be great. Sturdy school equipment
may cost more, but the life of the equipment and the increased satisfaction and
safety make it worth the added initial cost.
Equipment that encourages
use of both large and small muscles, as well as independent activity and social
interaction, is of greatest benefit. Materials also should stimulate imagination
and creative ideas, and reflect the backgrounds of the children.
must provide appropriate, planned outdoor play environments.
provides many benefits for children (Frost, Bowers, & Wortham, 1990; Frost
et al., 2001; Henninger, 1994; McGinnis, 2002; Rivkin, 1995). Large muscle play,
often impossible or impractical indoors, provides children with opportunities to
expand their range of activity. To encourage curiosity and creativity,
playground environments should allow children to explore, build, climb, hide,
and move about. While some commercial equipment may be useful, materials such as
tires, lumber, telephone poles, railroad ties, cable spools, scrap pipe,
barrels, and boxes can be used to build suitable play structures. Equipment that
allows increasingly complex use is most functional. Children should be able to
build temporary structures on the playground. Older children should have
adequate tools and fewer restrictions for building forts and models. They should
have ample opportunities for climbing on ropes, ladders, nets, and trees.
Adaptation may be necessary for children with special needs, such as physical
disabilities or attention disorders (Flynn & Kieff,
Playgrounds should include a sloping area, large sand areas, and
areas for digging. While climate may restrict some outdoor activity, playgrounds
should be planned for utilization throughout the year. Water play should be
encouraged in warm weather and snow activities in cold weather. If space
permits, gardening and animals add an important dimension to childrenŐs outdoor
play activity (Rivkin, 1995).
When possible, location of play areas near
classrooms permits props and play to move freely from one area to another.
Outdoor play space also should include cubbyholes or spaces that can serve as
role-game features (e.g., a house, a boat, a plane).
Outdoor play is
significantly different from indoor play. The outdoor environment permits noise,
movement, and greater freedom with raw materials, such as water, sand, dirt, and
construction materials. When challenging playground equipment is available,
outdoor play offers children the opportunity to increase physical activity, and
thus develop muscle strength and coordination. Outdoor play time and school
recess should be provided in all programs for children of all ages and abilities
(Frost et al., 2001; Griffin & Rinn, 1998; Jensen, 2000; McGinnis, 2002;
We must provide for carefully planned curricula for
all populations of children.
Through careful planning, all children--from
infants through adolescents--can learn concepts by way of play activities (Frost
et al., 2001; Isenberg & Jalongo, 2000; Jensen, 2000; Johnson et al., 1999).
School programs should recognize this truth and build upon the interrelatedness
of all aspects of a child's development. To do so, teachers and administrators
must ensure a balance among the cognitive, physical, and affective areas of the
curriculum. Play has a central role in achieving this balance. Professionals
must help parents understand that a curriculum that incorporates play
strengthens and supports childrenŐs intellectual development.
activities enable children to gain perspectives on the world and to practice
culturally sensitive skills that will allow adequate functioning in the global
world in which they live. Notable curriculum planning provides for this
sensitivity and skill development through play.
We must assume
responsible parent/teacher roles.
Adults have a major responsibility in
fostering children's play (Berger, 1999; Murata & Maeda, 2002; Swick, in
press). Parents and teachers provide stimulation, attitudes, and insight that
support the development of each child's potential. With the youngest of
children, the adult is totally responsible for providing materials and playing
with the child. As a child's attention span increases and interest in the world
emerges, provision of materials and experiences takes on new meaning. Teachers
must be aware of each child's needs and know when and how to match materials and
activities with the child's interests. They need to know when to offer new
materials, a prop, or an idea to move the play toward a more challenging and
satisfying end. Teachers also must be observant of children in spontaneous play
settings, and intervene at critical times (Isenberg & Jalongo, 2000; Johnson
et al., 1999). In some settings, children will need adults who serve as role
models in play situations. Teachers also must know how to play with children in
those settings, yet maintain the teacher role of leading and directing. At
times, a teacher must intervene to check and control a child's impulse, or to
help a child verbalize a feeling.
A CALL TO ACTION
believes that all educators, parents, and policymakers must take the lead in
articulating the need for play experiences in children's lives, including the
To assume strong advocacy roles, it is imperative that
all educators, parents, and policymakers who work with or for children from
infancy through adolescence fully understand play and its diverse forms. Equally
important is the ability to use that knowledge to achieve what is best for
children in all settings. This paper has argued strongly for legitimizing play
as an appropriate activity in schools and other educational settings. Therefore,
educators, families, and policymakers can and should:
- Optimize brain functions by providing rich experiences that include a
variety of learning materials, feedback, appropriate levels of challenge, and
enough time to process information
- Rethink and transform the nature of relationships and communication
between adults and children
- Make play a fundamental part of every school curriculum
- Recognize, respect, and accept play in all its variations as worthwhile
- Balance work and play to ensure that children reap the benefits of
intrinsic motivation and experience sheer joy in their endeavors
- Balance encouragement and opportunity to fulfill children's natural
tendency and need to play; children will find the means to play if the
environment affords an opportunity to do so
- Create a climate of acceptance by respecting children's play choices,
recognizing the cultural context in which play occurs, and providing many play
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