Why Play Matters
Play is a way of learning, a way of growing, a way of developing, a way of connecting.
You may have heard that “play is the work of childhood.” This original quote is sometimes attributed to psychologist Jean Piaget or Maria Montessori, though it isn’t clear that either actually said it. In any case, the idea that play is a child’s job has been around for a while.
Fred Rogers did say something along these lines. In his 1995 book, You Are Special: Neighborly Words of Wisdom from Mister Rogers, he wrote:
“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. At various times, play is a way to cope with life and to prepare for adulthood. Playing is a way to solve problems and to express feelings. In fact, play is the real work of childhood.”
When speaking of play as a child’s work, the idea is to communicate (to all the dull adults out there) just how important play is. The goal is to encourage parents and caregivers and educators to make sure that play is a priority and not just an afterthought. The point is to emphasize that, for children, play is not just frivolous. It is the ideal way to learn.
And that’s true: there are several very important functions of play in early childhood and beyond. But it's also more than that.
Play is joyful. Play is fun, free of obligations.
Play is powerful and important for its own sake, not just because of a potential end result.
There’s no need to devalue recreation after childhood, either. We grown-ups benefit, too, from playing with the children in our lives, as well as simply from taking a break from the pressures of the world to enjoy a few moments (or, we can only hope, even longer) of leisure.
And for kids, that break is vital: for their brains, for their bodies, for their emotions.
Play is so vital for children that the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child recognized the right of every child “to engage in play and recreational activities.” The American Academy of Pediatrics has also asserted its position that "play . . . is essential to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children."
The AAP further states that "play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength." Play lets children engage and interact with a world that they can master and to "try on" adult roles. Playing with other children helps to build skills in negotiation, problem-solving, decision-making, conflict resolution, and self-advocacy. Playing with caregivers helps to establish, solidify, and maintain a powerful connection.
Ultimately, though? Play matters because it's fun!