Why play is so important to early childhood development

Child playChild development experts are beginning to reexamine whether the role of play in the learning process may be more important than was originally thought. The American Academy of Pediatrics has stated that “play (or some available free time in the case of older children and adolescents) is essential to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth.”

In fact, play is so important to optimal child development that it has been recognized by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights as a right of every child!

Dr. Stuart Brown, the foremost authority on play behavior in the U.S. and leader of the National Institute for Play, contends that play makes us smarter in the sense that it enables us to process new information, adapt to new situations, and handle complex social interactions better than other animals that play less. Researchers have discovered that the amount of play correlates positively to the development of the frontal cortex. This is the area of the brain that is responsible for discerning relevant from irrelevant information, monitoring and organizing our thoughts and feelings and choosing between good and bad actions and other high order functions. Without play, proper cognitive and emotional development cannot occur.

Dr. Brown notes that the time period of most intense play coincides with the most dramatic growth of the cerebellum, another critical part of the brain that is responsible for coordinating key functions in other parts of the brain. This correlation suggests that there is a relatively narrow window during which play helps stimulate brain development.

At play we imagine and experience new situations, create and test possibilities, and learn and practice new skills and lessons in a safe environment. Because we are just playing, there is no risk in failure and we can push the envelope-and thereby boost cognitive development without penalty. In this way, Dr. Brown contends, play helps “sculpt” the brain.

Want to encourage creative activities? Set up various areas in your home that can promote different types of play:

  • Art center
  • Drama and dress-up
  • Music, instruments and singing
  • Books, books, books

For more specific ideas on how to encourage creative play, visit What to Expect, Today’s Parent, or PBS Parents.

Through play, children explore the world around them, imagine alternatives, solve problems individually or with others, learn how to negotiate, learn how to express their feelings, and learn to be creative.

From infants, to toddlers, to school-aged children, play is an essential part of learning!

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Photo by Stuart Miles and FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

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