Imagination Playground: The Vital Role of Play in a Child's Life

by DrRobyn on May 5, 2008

 Imagination Playground: The Vital Role of Play in a Child's Life

Play is an important part of a child’s development. We all have seen the traditional “monkey bars,” swings, and jungle gyms. But when architect, David Rockwell, came up with a concept for a playground—he thought outside of the box.

According to yesterday’s New York Times:

Instead of monkey bars and jungle gyms, there are blue and white blocks to stack into high walls or to connect as sluices and walkways. In place of swing sets and seesaws, there are wheelbarrows and rolling carts to move materials about. And while there are still the familiar elements of sand and water, they are no longer there to be shoveled and splashed so much as turned into landscapes of fanciful design.

Believe it or not— “Imagination Playground,” is taking the place of an empty parking lot near the South Street Seaport in Lower Manhattan. It’s purpose to provide a more engaging space for children. What a great way to use vacant space!

A unique child-centric downtown oasis, Imagination Playground combines sand, water, “loose parts” and play associates to encourage a constantly changing environment where children can play, dream and build. Activity is mixed with creativity by providing diverse materials to promote unstructured “free play.”

Play is essential for:

Physical Development: Play helps with the development of gross motor and fine motor skills. It also helps children become aware of the strength, power, and capabilities of their bodies. They become more self assured in these competencies and can then build on them by engaging in more challenging activities and feats. Such confidence is essential in helping the child succeed in all areas of life.

Social and Emotional Development: Everyone has a natural tendency to want to belong to a group. Play allows children to develop many social skills that are necessary for future success. For example, play allows children to try out new skills when the stakes aren’t high. They can put what they’re learning about values and character into action. In addition, it allows them to understand how to negotiate, share, take opposing perspectives, assert themselves, and compromise.

At all levels of development, play enables children to feel comfortable and in control of their feelings by: 1) allowing the expression of unacceptable feelings in acceptable ways and 2) providing the opportunity to work through conflicting feelings.

Cognitive Development: Play helps to exercise the brain! Studies show that play can assist in the development of planning, attention, attitude, creativity, memory, and perspective-taking. It can also stimulate the imagination and creative thinking. When playing with others, children can develop their language and communication skills as well. Kids learn when they’re having fun!

Some scientists are very concerned that because children spend their time differently than they did say, 70 years ago, children’s ability to self-regulate is also quite different.

A recent study replicated a study of self-regulation first done in the late 1940s, in which psychological researchers asked kids ages 3, 5 and 7 to do a number of exercises. One of those exercises included standing perfectly still without moving. The 3-year-olds couldn’t stand still at all, the 5-year-olds could do it for about three minutes, and the 7-year-olds could stand pretty much as long as the researchers asked. In 2001, researchers repeated this experiment. “Today’s 5-year-olds were acting at the level of 3-year-olds 60 years ago, and today’s 7-year-olds were barely approaching the level of a 5-year-old 60 years ago,” says Elena Bodrova at Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning.

Why is self regulation so important?

During make-believe, children can begin a private dialog with themselves in which they use their brains to decide what they’re going to do and how they’re going to do it. If you think about it, we all rely on this private speech, even as adults, to figure out how to if, when, and how to proceed when we are faced with challenges.

Unfortunately, the more structured the play, the more children’s private speech declines. Essentially, because children’s play is so focused on lessons and leagues, and because kids’ toys increasingly inhibit imaginative play, kids aren’t getting a chance to practice policing themselves. When they have that opportunity…self-regulation improves.

Laura Berk, professor of psychology at Illinois State University.

Examples of Different Kinds of Play:

Sensorimotor Play: Coined by Piaget, infants and toddlers experiment with motor movement and body sensations with both object and people. Examples: Grasping a toy, rolling a ball,

Pretend Play: In pretend play, children can carry out plans, take on different roles, transform objects, express feelings and ideas, and represent experience symbolically. Examples: Playing “house,” and “flying to the moon.”

Games with Rules: This is typically a very organized form of playing. It usually involves “teams” or different sides, competition, and agreed-upon ways of winning and playing the game. Examples: Tag, baseball, hide and seek.

What can we do to encourage play?

(1) Read stories together: Books provide opportunities for language development, imagination of characters, and examples of characters that use self regulation and values to make decisions and follow through.

(2) Encourage children to talk to themselves: This practice will help children rely on their own opinions and gut reactions when it comes to figuring out how to proceed.

(3) Cook, sew, or build together: These activities provide directions as well as chances to make something “their own.”

(4) Provide props and a dress-up box: These items are great for imaginative play. You can provide realistic prompts as well as symbolic props that will help to get the mind going.

(5) Get them into programs that provide games as well as instruction: Great after-school programs that provide both time for structure as well as games where instructions are provided help children to learn how to win and lose graciously—as well as how to follow rules.

(6) Provide free time without the TV and Video Games: Children need time to play without the help of a computer or TV set. Encourage children to use their imagination or play with friends instead of simply enjoying passive recreation.

The most important thing is to have fun and remember—play is important. While people used to say, “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” we now know that the role of play is a lot more crucial to development. So go out and have a good time!

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