Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The Joy and Benefits of Play for Your Child

By Susan Heron Tatty Bumpkin Training Coordinator and paediatric physiotherapist

It's National Play Day, maybe  a good time to reflect on the word 'play' - after all play is free and can be done anywhere!

What is Play?  

Nancy Stewart in her book ‘How Children Learn’ acknowledges that play is ‘an elusive concept, which has been defined on many different ways’. Play can be:
  • A type of activity e.g. rough and tumble play or imaginative play or 
  • A ‘state of mind' e.g. you may invite your child to help you build a tower out of wooden blocks. To start with they might follow your directions . However, if given time and some space, your child may start to become immersed in balancing the bricks on top of one another and start to build their own structures. At this point the activity becomes truly playful and truly powerful. 
In a report on the Early Years Foundation Stage Helen Moylett and Nancy Stewart described  play as: 'An open ended activity, freely chosen by the child. Play is open to spontaneous ideas as they arise, so any initial plans about what to play, how to play and who to play with, can change from moment to moment. In play the player finds their own purpose - it might be enjoyment, challenge, social interaction, exploring things or ideas, practising and perfecting skills’.  

It's Important for Children to Play

Current research is demonstrating that play is essential to a child's cognitive, socio-emotional, and physical development. When children are fully and freely engaged in play, their play is transformative - that is they will: 
  • Learn new things
  • Develop emotional, physical and social competencies/abilities
  • Experience empowerment and grow in confidence
  • Learn to problem solve
  • Enhance their creativity.
Nancy stresses the freedom of play and suggests this freedom is what makes play so exciting for children. 
  • Freedom when playing allows your child to ‘explore down uncharted pathways, turning this way and that, deciding to continue or change the destination, keeping alert to the possibilities all along the way’. 
  • Freedom means there is no right or wrong way with play! Your child feels it's safe to try something new and, because they have chosen the activity, will often end up puzzling over it for a much longer time. (N. Stewart 2012).

Play and Learning

‘Within the early childhood context, play has long been recognised as the most valuable vehicle for children’s learning and development’ (C. Stevens 2013). 
Way back in 1949 Norma Alessandrini, an Occupational Therapist, suggested that:
‘Play is the child’s way of learning and an outlet for his innate need for activity. It is his business or his career. In it he engages himself with the same attitude and energy that we engage ourselves in regular work. For each child it is a serious undertaking not to be confused with diversion or idle use of time. Play is not folly. It is a purposeful activity’ (N. Alessandrini 1949).
Now research is increasingly showing just how essential play is for learning, particularly when the young child uses play to explore their surrounding world and how it works. 
Piaget separated play activities from learning activities, but current research is directly linking play with:
  • Healthy brain development (Bjorklund & Pellegrini, 2000) and the building of new neural connections in the brain which allow flexible and intelligent ways of approaching the world (N. Stewart 2012) 
  • Development of cognitive skills. Diamond et al (2007) suggest that play and learning may not be so easily distinguished from each other.   

Gross Motor Play – Play Using the Whole Body

Active play using the whole body is a big part of nursery or pre-school life. It is a major part of the Tatty Bumpkin class as well. 
Gross motor play helps a child to develop their physical abilities and also to link what they are sensing from the world around with their movements - 'sensory-motor integration'.
The linking of sensory experiences with movements occurs in the brain - it leads to the child being able to focus on what they are experiencing, then plan and organise their movements. Interestingly, pretend play and physical play (specifically, rough and tumble play) have also been linked to emotional competence. In fact, in a study of physical activity in pre-schoolers, parents described the immediate benefits of gross motor play for their pre-schoolers as “improvements in their children’s mood and mental health” (Harvey-Berino, Geller, Dorwaldt, Flynn & Walfield, 2001).

Play and Academic Success 

Play both with parents and with friends has been shown to lead to longer term academic success. Playing with friends has been positively linked to early understanding, reading and number skills as well as increased engagement with learning activities (Fantuzzo, Sekino, & Cohen, 2004). 
The nurturing and responsive relationships that are strengthened when you play with your child have been shown to have a positive impact on their brain development, especially improving their speaking and literacy skills. (Tamis-LeMonda, Shannon, Cabrera, & Lamb, 2004).

The 3 Characteristics of Play

Occupational Therapist and play specialist Anita Bundy suggested 3 characteristics of play. Next time you watch your child playing - look for out for these  ...

Characteristic of Play 1 - Is your child intrinsically motivated?
When children are motivated to do an activity purely for its own sake rather than for a reward i.e. a sticker or a ‘well done!’ they are said to be intrinsically motivated
Intrinsic motivation leads to active engagement, persistence and enjoyment. 

You can get an idea of just how intrinsically motivated your child is by:
  • Looking at your child’s engagement in the activity - are they fully immersed? If your child is actively engaged in their play - seeming to be ‘in the moment’ they are likely to be intrinsically motivated. Intrinsic motivation and engagement are related to a concept called 'flow'. This concept was put forward by Csikczentmihalyi  in the 1990's. He defined ‘flow’ as: 'a deep, effortless involvement in an activity in which the person loses sense of self and time' . He suggested that the best 'flow' experiences occur when the child (or adult) engages in an activity which provides 'a level of challenge that matches their ability'  I.e. In a playful activity, your child does not feel overwhelmed by the activity but, on the other hand, the activity presents enough of a challenge - so they are not bored by it.  
(Image courtesy of
  • Judging your child’s focus doing the activity. If your child is intrinsically motivated they will be enjoying and focusing on the actual doing of the activity rather than the result. E.g. Your child might be interested in the shapes they can make in the sand rather than actually building a sandcastle- that might be Dad's goal! 
(Image courtesy 
  • Asking yourself - is your child is persisting in the activity? A good sign that your child is intrinsically motivated is whether they persist despite coming up against obstacles.
  • Looking at the effect of the activity on your child. Basically is your child enjoying themselves?! They may not be smiling – instead your child’s joyfulness may be expressed by their uninhibited abandon in the play activity. Often joyfulness is observed through the energetic synchronisation of body, face, and voice. 

(Image courtesy of
Characteristic of Play 2 - Does your child feel 'in control'?
When children feel they are 'in charge of' their own actions or at least some aspect of the result of the activity - the activity is more playful. For a child to feel ‘in control’ they need to feel:
  • Safe enough to play
  • That they are making the decisions and have choices
  • That they can modify the activity at any time
  • That they are able to interact with the objects easily.
(image courtesy of

Characteristic of Play 3 Is your child suspending reality for a moment?! 
If children are able to free themselves from the constraints of reality this is a great sign that they are playing. For children to suspend reality they need to feel they can:

  • 'Break the rules' a little :-)
  • Playfully tease
  • Pretend to be something or someone else
  • Be the clown a little - tell a joke or do a silly gesture use objects in an unconventional way i.e. a pebble can be a spider!                                              

Happy Playing! 

Love Tatty Bumpkin xxxx


Alessandrini, N.(1949). Play - A child’s world. Am. J of Occupational Therapy, 4, 53-55.

Bjorklund, D. F., & Pellegrini, A. D. (2000). Child development and evolutionary psychology. Child Development, 71, 1687-170 in Cornelli Sanderson, R. (2010). "Towards a New Measure of Playfulness: The Capacity to Fully and Freely Engage in Play" Dissertations. Paper 232.

Bundy, A. (2013). Play in Occupational Therapy: What is it? What use is it? Lecture to Sensory Integration Network

Cornelli Sanderson, R. (2010). Towards a New Measure of Playfulness: The Capacity to Fully and Freely Engage in Play . Dissertations. Paper 232.

Csikczentmihalyi, M (1990). Flow – the psychology of optimal experience. New York. Harper Perennial.

Diamond, A., Barnett, S., Thomas, J., & Munro, S. (2007). Executive function can be improved in preschoolers by regular classroom teachers. Science, 318, 1387–1388.

Fantuzzo, J., Sekino, Y., & Cohen, H. L. (2004). An examination of the contributions of
interactive peer play to salient classroom competencies for urban Head Start children. Psychology in the Schools, 41, 323-336 in Cornelli Sanderson, R. (2010). Towards a New Measure of Playfulness: The Capacity to Fully and Freely Engage in Play . Dissertations. Paper 232

Harvey-Berino, J., Geller, B., Dorwaldt, A., Flynn, K., & Walfield, L. (2001). A qualitative data analysis of parental attitudes towards preschool physical activity. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 23, 24S.
Hirsh-Pasek, K. Golinkoff R, M. (2008) Why play=learning. In: Tremblay RE, Barr RG, Peters RDeV, Boivin M, eds. Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development. Montreal, Quebec: Centre of Excellence for Early Childhood Development Available at:

Parham, D. (2008). Play and Occupational Therapy in L.D. Parham & L.S.Fazio (eds) Play in occupational therapy for children (2nd edition).St Louis: Mosby pp 3- 39

Skard, G., Bundy, A.C. (2008). Test for playfulness in L.D. Parham & L.S.Fazio (eds) Play in occupational therapy for children (2nd edition).St Louis: Mosby, pp. 71 – 94

Stevens, C. (2013). The Growing Child: Routledge, pp9

Stewart, N. Moylett, H. (2012. Understanding the Revised Early Years Foundation Stage. Early Education.

Tamis-LeMonda,C. S., Shannon, J. D., Cabrera, N J., & Lamb, M. E. (2004). Fathers and
mothers at play with their 2- and 3-year-olds: Contributions to language and
cognitive development. Child Development, 75, 1806-1820

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