The importance of play
Ask almost any group of children about their favourite thing to do, and you'll probably hear the answer, "Play!" Elementary school students typically report that recess is the best part of their school day. Play occurs not only in every culture, but even across species. We'll be writing and talking all week about play and pretending, and the first step is to look at the role of play in development. Researchers in psychology, biology and philosophy have provided a number of definitions for play over the years, but Pellegrini and his colleagues boiled it down in a 2007 article in Developmental Review: Play is a "non-serious" version of behaviour in which the means is more important than the end product. The researchers noted that play behaviour is usually exaggerated compared to its "real life" counterpart, and elements of the real behaviour might be omitted or rearranged - they use the example of play-fighting, with its exaggerated, but soft, hits that aren't meant to harm the other person.
For decades, psychologists have contended that play is an important part of child development. In taking an evolutionary approach, Pellegrini noted that play was previously considered only to have long-term benefits, helping young animals to develop into effective hunters as adults. However, evolutionary theory dictates that the benefits of a behaviour must outweigh the cost if it is to spread throughout a species as play has. After reviewing biological and psychological research, Pellegrini determined that play helps kids to develop innovative solutions to problems in their environment - that is, it helps kids to become creative problem-solvers. Not only that, play has been linked to increases in exploration and cooperation, along with reductions in aggression.
Despite what seems like compelling evidence that play is an essential part of development, it appears that the amount of time children spend in imaginative play is decreasing. According to statistics published online by California State University, American children watch 4 hours of television, on average, per day. Fifty-four percent of 4 - 6 year olds preferred watching television over spending time with their fathers! Even schools are reducing free play time in favour of literacy and numeracy instruction, according to the Alliance for Childhood. They advocate for kindergarten programs with a balance between teacher-directed experiential learning and child-initiated exploration of the environment.
You can read Pellegrini's article here.
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