The Power of Play

By Michelle Salcedo, M.Ed., author of Uncover the Roots of Challenging Behavior: Create Responsive Environments Where Young Children Thrive

The Power of PlayDid you know that all mammals play? And scientists have identified play-like behaviors in other species as well, such as alligators and wasps. Over millions of years, evolution has eliminated traits that do not serve to propagate a species. So if animals play, it must mean there is a good reason for it. Mother Nature is pretty smart, because it turns out that play is extremely beneficial for all young, including human children.

Play prepares children for the challenges they will face as adults. It is through play that children develop and practice skills that will help them survive and navigate the world. From the outside, children’s play may look frivolous or like a waste of time, but research is clear that play is an essential element of childhood—one that needs to be honored and supported.

Children are active learners; they learn more when they are actively involved in the process (as opposed to being passive recipients of another’s knowledge). In a 2009 paper published by the Alliance for Childhood, authors Edward Miller and Joan Almon discuss the value of play as an active learning technique. They extoll play as an invaluable learning opportunity for children. They go on to attribute at least part of our nation’s academic struggles to a lack of play in early childhood.

In my book Uncover the Roots of Challenging Behavior, I introduce the HOMES scale as a tool one can use to assess whether a learning activity is active. A close look at the categories helps show just why play is such an effective learning tool for children.

  • Hands-on. As children play, they are manipulating real objects and using real tools to make sense of their world. As the great early childhood educator Bev Bos said, “If it hasn’t been in the hand and the body, it can’t be in the brain.” Play provides lots of opportunities for that hand-brain connection.
  • Open-ended. Play has no predetermined end, and there is no one way to navigate a play experience. The story arc can head in any direction a child takes it.
  • Meaningful. We learn more when we connect personally to what we are learning. In play, children reflect their lives and their understandings of the world; never is learning more meaningful than when it is constructed through play
  • Engaging. In the same way that learning needs to be hands-on, it also needs to be “brains-on.” We want children’s brains to be engaged during the process. Boring tasks of repetition or rote learning do not ignite children’s passion for learning. In play, children are using their brains to solve problems and navigate relationships with other children.
  • Sensory-oriented. The only way we are able to build our knowledge is through our senses. We learn as we see, listen, feel, smell, and taste. As children play, they use all their senses to explore their worlds. They deepen understanding as they encounter their surroundings.

Because children are so actively engaged when they play, play helps them learn all sorts of things. But let’s focus on three specific skills or understandings children develop through play that will serve them well as adults.

Symbolism. The foundational understanding of literacy is that the squiggles we call “letters” form words that symbolize ideas. When we symbolize the spoken word with the written word, we are able to communicate ideas much more effectively over space and time.

Now, picture a toddler who holds a shoe to his face and begins to babble. For that child, the shoe has magically transformed into a phone. In this moment, as one item comes to symbolize another, you are witnessing a nascent understanding of a concept that will someday transform into literacy. As children engage in pretend play, they are building a foundation on which we can build strong readers and writers.

Social Skills. As adults, we are regularly called upon to navigate relationships with people with whom we share this planet. Sometimes we have to wait for a turn, sometimes we have to negotiate a resolution to a conflict, sometimes we have to work with others to complete a task, and sometimes we even have to move on when we don’t get what we want.

When children move into their preschool years, they move from playing near other children to playing with them. As they make this transition, they are increasingly challenged to use and practice social skills. These are the skills they will call upon to work as part of a team on an important project, to mediate a conflict in a place of business, or to move on to bigger and better things after an inevitable disappointment.

Critical Thinking. It isn’t easy to build a tower from blocks, especially one that will stand up even though it is seven stories tall. With each decision a child makes during the construction process, the building will either be stronger—or crash to the ground. In play episodes like this, children must weigh possibilities, choose an option, and deconstruct results.

In the adult world, there rarely are cut-and-dried options. When we make decisions, we use the same mental processes that we developed when we were building block towers or putting together puzzles or painting a masterpiece at an easel. These seemingly simple play experiences require children to employ deep thinking skills. If children are able to practice these skills when there are relatively harmless consequences (the tower crashes, the last puzzle piece doesn’t fit right, the picture doesn’t turn out as desired), they will be better able to think through situations that could have more lasting repercussions.

If we do not understand the power of play, we might be tempted to dismiss it as a pointless diversion of the immature. We may try to rush children through playful episodes to get them focused on “the business of learning.” However, when we look at play through the lens of brain development and active learning, we come to realize that play is the business of childhood.

And the best part? Play is a whole bunch of fun! So instead of trying to draw children into your world, enter theirs. You might find that along with feeding your soul, play gives your brain a workout as well.

Michelle SalcedoMichelle Salcedo, M.Ed., is the chief academic officer at Sunshine House Early Learning Academy, a chain of over 120 childcare centers located across the United States. Her articles on young children frequently appear on the Sunshine House’s website and in the popular childcare journal Exchange. She has worked in the field of early childhood for over thirty years, starting as a “teacher’s helper” in her younger brother’s center. She has served as a teacher, director, trainer, and family educator in numerous childcare settings across Michigan, South Carolina, and Spain. She lives in Greenville, South Carolina.

Uncover the Roots of Challenging BehaviorMichelle is the author of Uncover the Roots of Challenging Behavior: Create Responsive Environments Where Young Children Thrive.


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