The Importance of Play in Early Childhood

I am taking a class right now on Play’s role in early childhood development. I always thought that play was important, but over the course of the semester I have really been challenged as to why it’s important. Today we talked about the risk taking that is often involved with play–specifically physical risk. Examples of this might include: learning to ride a bike, climbing a tree, rock climbing, and pulling a wagon up a hill and riding down in it. The idea of “helicopter parents” and “hovering parents” was discussed. In many of the research we have watched in this class, it seems that many parents in North America fall into these categories. A lot of parents express that they do not feel safe allowing their children to explore and play in certain ways–and if they do play, then the parents want to be able to observe everything that happens and supervise their children. In some ways, I can understand this and sympathize with parents concerns.

However, I think that some of the most amazing skills that children learn during play, occur because they are in charge of their own learning. If play is always structured, and always closely observed/supervised–I think that it can be difficult for children to be creative, explore, use their imagination and develop a sense of independence and control and problem solving skills. I think that opportunities for structured and supervised play do have a role in healthy childhood development, however I do not think we can cut out independent, unstructured and unsupervised, non-risky play behavior. I think that a healthy balance between the two is ideal. If a child has the opportunity to pull that wagon up the hill, jump in and ride down–it’s not the end of the world if they have a few scrapes and bruises. I had lots of minor scrapes and bumps and bruises growing up, but I think that having the opportunity to try new things and take risks let me understand natural consequences for various behaviors. If a child continually injures themselves in a specific play activity, they are not likely to continue playing that way without some modifications.

I think that if we all take on a helicopter approach to parenting/teaching, we will have a generation of children who will not know how to be creative or how to use their imaginations or learn to take risks. I think that they need to be allowed to explore these areas through play. As an alternative for parents and teachers, we should try to take a more active role in joining children’s play–not trying to dictate or structure it (at least not all the time). I think we also need to be OK with letting them get a few bumps and bruises along the way–it won’t kill them! It might even help them make smarter choices in the future when “riskier” opportunities arise. I think that If we structure all their play in such a way that there are never any risks, we are not fostering the development of their problem solving skills, leadership skills or socialization skills.

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