The Importance of Play: Recent Evidence from Psychology and Philosophy
If you’re like me, some of the most cherished memories from your childhood revolve around playtime. The exhilaration of swinging as high and as fast as I could in what my friends and I called ‘swingset races’ is still unmatched for me, and if truth be told, some of my best friendships were even forged over a shared love for certain toys! Oh, how simple friendships were back then…
Many of us may recall playtime with fondness. Indeed, it seems that many teachers and parents these days recognise the importance of play both at school and at home. Allowing children time to play can encourage social interaction, help to deepen the bonds between adults and children, and can help kids feel more comfortable in their environment. And, of course, playing is simply fun! Having a play break can put kids in a better mood and can create great memories.
However, the positive role of play in childhood development is not just hearsay. For instance, substantial evidence from psychologists over the past few decades suggests that pretend or symbolic play, where children imagine they are someone else (“I’m king of the woooorld!”) or project states onto inanimate objects (“Sssh! Teddy’s sleeping”), has an important role in various forms of development. As an example, a recent study suggests that role playing can increase children’s empathy (Goldstein & Winner, 2012). Who would’ve thought your ability to feel sad and happy for others as an adult may be traced back to those times you dressed up in mom’s shoes and lipstick and played ‘house’ with your friends?
Now, although some modern theorists suggest that much more work needs to be done to determine a causal relationship between play and childhood development rather than just a correlational one, it is still accepted by many teachers and psychologists alike that playful learning in general is “the most positive means yet known to help young children’s development” (Lillard et al., 2013, p.28).
Recent evidence from philosophers also brings to light some interesting considerations about the importance of play. For instance, some have suggested that pretend play may at least partly help to develop creativity (Carruthers & Picciuto, 2014). According to these theorists, pretend play is pretty special and innately rewarding – quite amazingly, it is a universal human behaviour that develops spontaneously in children at around 18 months, all over the world, without any encouragement. Creativity, too, is an important adaptive trait that at its most advanced is unique to human beings. The reason we naturally engage in pretend play, they say, is because it helps us to develop fundamental skills involved in being creative, such as ‘supposing’ and ‘bypassing the obvious’.
So, to deprive children of play is not only to deprive them of the chance to relax, make friends, and develop various faculties, it is perhaps also to deprive them of the development and expression of their natural, uniquely human capacity for creativity. In other words, play is an integral part of who we are as a species.
It is therefore useful for parents and teachers alike to remember that play isn’t just a ‘time filler’ activity and isn’t simply the antithesis of learning. Of course, more structured, traditional learning is important, but in an increasingly academically competitive world, perhaps too much emphasis is being placed on this kind of approach. Given that creativity is a highly valued trait in personal, academic and professional domains, it seems costly to give up on play sessions in favour of allocating yet more time for traditional classroom activities or homework. As we’ve seen, there is mounting evidence to show that in some circumstances, a child will learn skills through play that are just as valuable as those they learn from their lessons.
So take the time to let our children be children – indeed, let our children be human – and be sure to allow them the freedom to break out their toys, play dress-up and let their imaginations run wild in the playground and into adulthood.
Carruthers, P. & Picciuto, E. (2014). The origins of creativity. In E. Paul & S. Kaufman (eds.), The Philosophy of Creativity. Oxford University Press.
Goldstein, T. R., & Winner, E. (2012). Enhancing empathy and theory of mind. Journal of Cognition and Development, 13, 19-37.
Lillard, A. S., Lerner, M. D., Hopkins, E. J., Dore, R. A., Smith, E. D., & Palmquist, C. M. (2013). The impact of pretend play on children’s development: A review of the evidence. Psychological Bulletin, 139(1), 1-34.