November 24, 2011

Understanding and nurturing play

I will be writing the next posts about a subject that fascinates me: play.

                                                                              " We don’t stop playing because we grow old;
                                                                                              we grow old because we stop playing.”                                                                                                                            
                                                                                                                        George Bernard Shaw

Play is the kind of thing we might take for granted, thinking we know what it is, until we have to define and explain it. Much harder it is to understand what exactly happens in the heads of children during this fascinating linguistic, cognitive, social, and affective activity that unfortunately has been losing space in children’s agendas. Here I share some of my findings:

Playing is essential for children as it fulfills many of their developmental needs: to learn, to socialize, to create, to feel challenged, to calm themselves and focus, to compete and cooperate, to enjoy themselves and others, and finally to have fun. When at play children actively use their hands, head and heart.

Play allows children to learn about themselves, others and their environment. Play relates to and relies upon past and future experiences , as children actively make models of the world, when they repeat situations over and over to investigate and test their ideas.

Play only occurs when children do not feel anxious or threatened, and after they have become familiar and have explored the object they will play with. During play, children focus not on what objects can do, but on what they can do with them. Children can’t be forced to play and neither do they need to be taught to do so.

Play also nurtures the development of children's language skills, as they experiment with words, sentences, and structures during play to express their thoughts and ideas, to solve problems and to communicate their desires.  As children become more sophisticated in their play skills, their language also becomes equally sophisticated. Last, play provides opportunity for adults to share the children´s inner worlds on the children’s terms and pace.

Here are some tips that I have adapted from the Action Alliance for Children (www. for nurturing play with your students and children:

Let children master toys by making materials available for frequent and longer periods of time.

Provide playthings that kids can use in a variety of ways: blocks, paper and crayons, dolls and toy animals, balls, playdough, etc. The simpler the toy, the more complex the play.

Encourage kids to play with ordinary household objects like pots and pans and outdoor materials like sticks and grass.

Provide simple playthings that encourage children to be active and use their imaginations, not to watch while the toy does tricks.

Create an environment where children feel safe to try new things and where they feel they have the support of adults. Model playing and let them come with their ways.

Respond to play: A teacher sees a child playing and builds vocabulary by providing new words, naming things, narrating what they are doing.

Extend play: a teacher observes a child pretending a chair is a car and “driving.” She encourages imagination by asking “Where are you going? What do you see along the way?”

Guide play: One week a teacher turns the dress-up area into a costume library. Children practice language and social skills by acting out different roles.

Observe the child’s activities: Seeing a child line up toy dinosaurs by size shows her understanding of size comparisons and putting things in order. The child might also be replicating school’s entrance or any situation in which he/she has experienced being in line.

Take photos and keep some of their toys: A series of photos of a child’s block structures over time shows that she is learning more about spatial relations. It’s also nice to build memory and share it with children later in life. I cherish the pictures that were taken with me and my toys and I wish I had some of them to share with my children.

In the next post I will investigate types of play, what happens during play and how children know that someone is playing with them. See you soon!

A big frog-hug,


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