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How Play Helps the Mental, Social, Emotional and Cognitive Development of Children

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Young People
Wordcount: 4606 words Published: 23rd Sep 2021

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This paper explores how play helps in the mental, social, emotional and cognitive development in children. By explaining the theories of play, it also explores how play has changed over the years due to technological changes and the cognitive, mental, social emotional and social changes which take place when children play. Other aspects of play which are explored includes its contribution as an outlet for children to deal with experiences in the environment.

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Play is so important to a child’s development that it is promoted by the United Nations 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 31.1, which recognizes ”the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts” (WHO, 1989). Recognizing that children need time to engage in self-driven play is of essence among parents, caregivers and educators. Play promotes the cognitive, social, emotional and physical development of the child hence it should not be underestimated. Children also develop and strengthen skills such as language development, problem solving, negotiating, and sequencing skills which will be used in further learning (Singer et al., 2006).

The role of play in children development has been illustrated in various models and theories. For instance, Jean Piaget’s models of child development and learning are based on the perception that when a child grows, it develops cognition structures and mental images (schemes) or linked concepts to understand and respond to physical conditions in the environment. This are necessitated through play activities thus according to Piaget, a child’s structure in cognition develops from innate reflexes to complex mental activities (Singer et al., 2006).

According to Almon J. (2004) Piaget identifies four developmental stages which include Sensory motor where the child at birth to two years builds concepts about how reality works with the surrounding environment. At this stage, a child doesn’t have object permanence (knowledge that physical objects exist when not sighted). In the pre-occupational stage, the child doesn’t conceptualize abstractly and needs physical circumstances which are concrete (age of seven to 11 years). At two to seven years, the child is in the concrete operational stage where he begins to conceptualize and explain physical experiences by logical structures and can also engage in abstract problem solving. In the formal operations stage, cognition structures are adult like and encompass conceptual reasoning.

On the basis of the above stages therefore, Piaget develops the cognitive theory of play which outlines the cognitive principles of how cognition can be built in children (smith D., 1995). According to this theory, Repetition of experiences through play necessitates assimilation in the child’s structures of cognition thus the child sustains a mental equilibrium. New or different experiences cause loss of equilibrium and change the child’s cognitive structure to accommodate new conditions hence more and more structures of cognition are erected. Formalized learning as well as language development is enhanced in playing children. Coolhan K. et al. (2000) suggests that opportunities for learning oral communication is presented to the child and this early development of language will later be useful in reading and writing. In addition, children develop problem-solving skills as they play. Some of the playing activities they engage in require critical thinking skills like building with blocks, playing with water and sand, doing puzzles, or constructing and designing their imaginative play area (Huertwitz S., 2002). Free child driven play will make a child curious about his or her world and this facilitates further learning. Therefore according to Ginsburg K. (2001), when allowed to pursue areas of their own interest, children are likely to develop a positive attitude towards learning. According to Jean Piaget, Play creates an atmosphere which is relaxed where learning can take place easily.

In addition, Piaget suggests that play is not similar to learning and for development in cognition to occur, there has to be assimilation and adaptation. He further refers to play as assimilation in the absence of accommodation. Jean Piaget outlines four types of play namely physical or sensory motor play where a child engages in repetition of physical activity such as swinging of the feet or back throwing of the head for sheer enjoyment of doing so. In symbolic play, the child has a mental representation of non present realities. In this type of play Piaget suggests that

“It is primarily affective conflicts that appear in symbolic play.  If there is a scene at lunch, for example, one can be sure that an hour or two afterward it will be recreated with dolls and will be brought to a happier solution.  If the child has been frightened by a dog, in a symbolic game things will be arranged so that dogs will no longer be mean or children will become brave” ( Piaget, 1912).

Examples of types of play which encompass Piaget’s types include;    Games of pivots (Construction) which    Involve learning accidentally from symbolic play. On this type of play, Piaget suggested that they are “initially imbued with play symbolism but tend later to constitute genuine adaptations or solutions to problems and intelligent creations” Piaget, 1962.   Other games include Games having arbitrary rules, games involving two or more players, board games with rules, sports and card games (almond J., 2004)

Hurtwitz S. (2002) suggests that creative play forms part of creative activity in children which enables them to express themselves openly and without judgment and its shown when familiar materials are used in an unusual way especially when children engage in imaginative play and role-playing. Creativity nurtures a child’s emotional health and the experiences underwent during their first years of life can significantly develop their creativity. It fosters mental development by providing opportunities for trying out new ideas, ways of problem-solving and thinking (Singer et al., 1996). Children need to be provided with creative materials and experiences like drawing/painting, photography, music, field trips, working with wire, clay, paper, wood, water or shadows. Time is needed to explore these materials on their own in order to purse their ideas. This involves time to think about how to plan, design, construct, experiment and revise project ideas. Varieties experiences like field trips, celebrating holidays and activities with other ethnic groups and encouraging children to bring visitors to school leads to creativity. Children should have more personal experiences with people and situations outside of their own environment, in order to incorporate them in their play (Smith D., 1995).

According to Piaget, play in children enhances cognitive development which is achieved when there is a continued equilibrium between assimilation (imposing a schema which exists on the world) and accommodation (where the schemas are modified to fit the world).For example through pretence play, a child imposes mental schema on the world thus assimilation and they also observe or imitate past events or activity thus accommodation; play also facilitates creation of tension between accommodation and assimilation which contributes to development in the child (Coolhan K. et al., 2000). Piaget additionally suggests that when children play with objects (pivots) they develop symbolic abstract thoughts and they construct their knowledge through social group interaction which is internalized into thought. Fantasy play or solitary play in infancy become cooperative and negotiated thus contributing to the social, cognitive and emotional status (personality) of the child (Singer et. Al., 2006).

Play develops social skills in children especially when playing house and taking up the roles of different family members. Vygotsky cites a situation of two sisters playing at being sisters. They acquire good behaviours and relations between them that are never noticed in daily life situations. Therefore play allows interaction between children as they communicate with each other, socialize in play and listen to ideas of others (Vygotsky, 1978). Cooperation is also enhanced in these children as they discover the importance of working together and sharing the play tools available. Incase of conflicts, they are able to negotiate for better continued playing. Moreover, a socially healthy child adjusts well in school are more likely to perform well academically (Smith D., 1995).

Motor skill development is enhanced by active play activities in children. They gravitate to physical activity when left on their own. In play, they perform many activities like running and jumping which leads to physical fitness. Children who don’t play are more prone to obesity and many other complications. Apart from large muscle skills, active play also enhances the development of small motor skills when children build, paint or play with clay. Acquisition and refinement of skills necessary for successful learning in school is via active play (Ginshburg K., 2001).

Freud developed the psychoanalytic theory and related it to play in children. According to him, play gives children a good platform to speak out unfulfilled wishes and helps in revealing hidden, unconscious wishes and conflicts. Through play, children resolve tensions and build their cognitive, emotional and moral aspects of life thus contributing to their personality.

Children initiate play activities and through this, they are able to communicate symbolically through verbal and non verbal means, e.g. through such play activities like narration and story telling or those which involve assigning roles (Singer et al., 2006)

According Freud, Play in children helps to relieve various forms of anxiety which include objective anxiety, the fear of the external world; instinctual anxiety; the fear of ones own instincts and the anxiety of conscience (super ego). Freud further suggests that children during infancy cannot oppose actively and defend themselves from the outside world either physically or by modification according to their will. Their ego thus in all kinds of ways “endeavors to defend itself against it by means of physical force or to modify it in accordance to their own will” (Freud, 1936)

The ego in children according to Freud thus defends itself by denial of reality by fantasy, transformation of reality to suit own purpose and fulfill own wishes and it is at this point that the child accepts reality. He suggests that children express denial in form of play using word or art. He suggested that;

“A small handbag or tiny umbrella is intended to help a little girl to pretend to be a grown-up lady.  Toy weapons of various sorts enable a little boy to ape manhood.  Even dolls create the fiction of motherhood, while trains, cars, or blocks produce in the minds of children the agreeable fantasy that they can control the world”.  (Freud, 1936)

Erik Erikson derived the theory of child development in which he suggested that development and socialization processes occur in specific predetermined stages and he focused on the social aspect of development. He divided life in eight stages each with a unique time frame and characteristics. According to Erickson, each stage of development has a negative outcome and he termed this as an ‘identity crisis’. In Erickson’s stages therefore, I will focus on the first four stages which are crucial to play and the child’s social development (singer et. al., 2006)

According to Erikson, “satisfactory learning and resolution of each crisis is necessary if the child is to manage the next and subsequent ones satisfactorily, just as the foundation of a house is essential to the first floor, which in turn must be structurally sound to support the second storey” (singer et al., 2006). Erickson also suggests that learning Trust Versus Mistrust occurs in the first one or two years and at this stage he asserts that if the child is given well nurturing and love, play is facilitated hence trust and security is developed. On the other hand, if handled badly, insecurity and mistrust is inculcated in the child and this limits play activity which will later manifest in the child as treatment of others with suspicion and mistrust (Smith D., 2000).

The second stage, Autonomy versus Shame, according to Erickson takes place in early childhood, between 18 months to four years. The child if well parented comes out this stage sure about himself, has elation with his control and is proud and not ashamed. If poor parenting is given, play activity is curbed and thus a psychosocial crisis which encompasses a stormy child with tantrums negativism and stubbornness ensues (Hurtwitz s., 2002). This crisis is negative to play activity in the child affecting the social development of the child.

According to Erickson, The third stage, Initiative versus Guilt, results in occurrence of crisis during the play age in later preschool years. At this stage, the healthy developing child learns to imagine play activity and to broaden skills via active play of various kinds which may include fantasy. The child also learns to cooperate with others and to lead as well as to follow. However if guilt is inculcated in the child, he becomes fearful, does not participate in play, depends unnecessarily on adults and play skills are restricted in development and imagination (singer et al., 2006).

The fourth stage as per Erickson is Industry versus Inferiority which occurs between school age and junior high school and at this stage, the child masters skills of life with regard to relating with other peers in accordance with rules, continuing from free play to play which may be structured by rules and participates in formal teamwork e.g. baseball while engaging in social studies and arithmetic (Alman J., 2004). Homework is necessary and self-discipline increases yearly. Therefore a child who has passed the previous stages successfully through play activity and good nurturing will be industrious.

Basing on the above stages, Erikson perceived the world of play as important to early stages of development of a child as it offers a safe place for the child to work through his conflicts for example children can be seen pushing dolls in preschool in the same way that they were pushed. They also engage in role playing family members or other people and this often common. According to Erickson, play creates a safe world in which consequences are neither strong nor the limits rigid. For example, some of the favorite things children in preschool do include role playing, parents, teachers, monsters and wild animals (Smith D., 1995).

According to Erickson therefore, play gives the child an opportunity to organize ideas, fantasies and feelings in a plan of play. Therefore play facilitates emotional development and allows exploration of ideas and relationships with less doubt, guilt and sham.

Classical Theories of Play

According to the Surplus Energy Theory, a child is motivated to play if he or she has a need to release surplus energy and play occurs due to surplus energy which exists when children are set free from their parents self preservation activities.  Through the aimless numerous play activities, surplus energy is released. However this theory does not explain why people and children with little energy engage in play activities (Ginsburg K., 2001).

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The relaxation theory was devised by Lazarus in 1883 and Patrick in 1916 and it plays a role in children and is a mode of releasing inhibitions which have accumulated from fatigue as a result of relatively new tasks to children. Therefore in children,   Play replenishes used energy as a result of unfamiliar activities of cognition that child engages in. According to the relaxation theory, children and other people play because they need to relax and be away from normal life’s stresses (Singer et al., 2006). The preparation Theory (Instinct/Practice) on the other hand suggests that play prepares children for adult life through teaching: e.g. through such activities as team work and role playing activities (James et al).

The recapitulation theory perceives hat activities which re-enact events from history are intrinsically rewarding e.g. hunting, throwing games, hide and seek and chasing. However, many of these activities do not reflect history (Hurtzwitz, S., 2002).

According to the Cathartic Theory, children play because of the need of expression of disorganized and painful emotions in a manner which is harmless. For example, children may re-enact their punishments e.g. by scolding a doll. Children can release and complete previously restrained feelings by playing e.g., bursting balloons, pounding clay, or punching an inflated bunching bag) (Schaefer, 1999). This kind of emotional release is important in psychotherapy (Ginsberg, 1993).

The Compensation Theory perceives play in children occurs to satisfy the psychic needs through their work e.g. boring and repetitive activity. However, this theory does not fully account for the motivation to play. Children who may want to hit their friends because of anger can redirect this action into play using ”war-like” board games (chess, checkers), card games (war), or competitive sports activities (Almon J., 2004).

Some of the modern and post modern theories of play which have been formulated include:

  • Competence/Effectance Theory which perceives Humans as being out to seek and optimize their arousal levels. This is due to the need to generate interactions with the environment i.e. from child to adult. According to this theory, arousal optimization and need for interaction with the environment leads to an effect which gives children a feeling of competence and is rewarding to them. Though this theory accounts for general motivation, it cannot separate play from work (Smith D., 1995).
  • According to the Pre-Exercise Theory developed by Groos (1898), play in children is a necessary practice for essential behavior in later survival. Thus the playful tactics for example fighting animal games or the rough play of children are the portrayal of skills which will assist in their survival and coping later in life (singer et al., 2006).

Other theories include the recapitulation theory by G ‘ Stanley Hall (1906) and Wundt (1913) which perceives play not as an activity which necessitates future instinctual skills but serve to relieve children of unnecessary hereditary instinctual skills carried. According to this theory, “Each child passes through a series of play stages corresponding to and recapitulating the cultural stages in the development of the race”. 

Appleton in 1919 devised the growth theory which define play as a response to generalized growth drive in children and facilitate the mastery of skills which aid them in adult function.  On the other hand, the Ego Expanding theories were developed by Lange in 1902 and Claparde in 1911 and they perceived play as the way of nature to complete the ego and thereby forming the personality of the individual in terms of cognition, social and other skills ( Ginsberg K., 2001).

According to infantile dynamics by Lewin, play takes place as a result of the child’s cognitive life space which is unstructured thereby causing failure to differentiate real and unreal.  Therefore, in Lewin’s theory, the child changes into a behavior of playful unreality in which things can be changed and are arbitrary (singer et al., 2006).

Buytendijk devised another current theory of play in which he suggested that “the child plays because he is a child and because his cognitive dynamics do not allow for any other way of behaving” (Smith D, 1995) therefore it expresses uncoordinated approach to the environment that the child develops.

The Cathartic Theory (Freud 1908), perceives play as representing an attempt to partly satisfy drives or solve conflicts where the means for doing so lacks in the child thus a child has temporarily worked through a drive through play hence temporary resolution to the drive.

Among the modern and post modern theories is also the Psychoanalytic Theory by Buhler (1930) and Anna Freud (1937). They suggested that play in children does not only represent wish-fulfilling attempts but also attempts to cope with anxiety provoking situations which may overwhelm the child thus according to Freud and Buhler, play in children is both defensive and adaptive to deal with anxiety (Singer et al., 2006). Other current theories are Piagets cognitive theory which has been explained in the earlier stages of this paper.

Play does not only promote normal child development, but also helps them deal with experiences existing in the environment. Children who lack verbal self expression are able to articulate their feeling and issues through play (Haworth, 1964). Play acts as a means of helping children deal with emotional and behavioral issues. In therapy for example, toys and play materials are provided to inform the child that that space and time is different from all others and that the child should feel free to be fully themselves (James et al)). The child then plays out concerns and issues, which may be too horrific or anxiety producing to directly confront them in the presence of anybody who can help them to feel heard and understood. Symbolic representations through play activities with dolls and puppets give children emotional distance from emotionally attached experiences, thoughts and feelings (Coolhan K. et al., 2000).

Play is also used to conquer fear in children and thus playfulness in children dispels depression and stress (Coolhan K. et al., 2000). Therefore allowing a child to play hide-and-seek in a darkened room can help in conquering fear of the dark. Moreover, dramatic play with hospital-related toys can help to significantly reduce hospital-specific fears. At the same time, Fantasy play helps a child to move from a passive to an active role for example when a child engages in role-playing giving an injection to a doll patient. Fantasy play in children also fosters the expression of several defense mechanisms like projection, displacement, repetition, and identification (James et al).

In as much as Play contributes to the cognitive, social, emotional and mental well-being of children, free time for children to engage in playing has been greatly reduced by technological development which has brought factors such as hurried lifestyle, changes in family structure, and increased attention to academics and enrichment (Hurtwitz S., 2002).

Children who are under forced labour and exploitation are not able to get time and freedom to play. In the current world, there are issues like war and neighborhood violence in which case children are not able to play due insecurity. Children from poverty stricken homes have no resources that facilitate safe playing. However, even those children from well off families with adequate resources may not be benefiting from play due to an increasingly hurried and pressured lifestyle that prevent them from protected self-driven play (Almon et al., 2004).

Many children due to technology are currently getting less time for free exploratory play because they are hurried to adapt into adult roles and their future roles at young tender ages (James et al). Parents are misled with carefully marketed messages that model parents expose their children to every opportunity available to advance hence they go on buying many enrichment tools to ensure their children take part in many activities instead of free exploratory play. Some children may be given specialized books and toys meant to stimulate them to develop adequately while others are provided with gyms and enrichment programs after school (Ginsberg K., 2007). Many of these tools and programs are available and highly advertised to parents who believed they are necessary for good development of their children. Therefore in many occasions, much of the time is spent organizing for special events or taking children to those events which also deplete the family’s financial resources. Free self-driven play which is important to children is replaced by highly packed adult-supervised or adult-driven activities, and this limits creativity in children (singer et al., 2006).

In addition, this hurried lifestyle brings stress and anxiety related disorders like depression for some children. Increased pressure to perform well in academics possibly manifests in school avoidance and somatic symptoms. The reduction in play may also be due to passive entertainment via television or computer/video games. In contrast to the health benefits of active, creative play and the known developmental benefits organized activities, there is ample evidence that this passive entertainment is not healthy and has harmful effects (Smith D., 1995). In other cases, children who are exposed to videos and computer programs at an early age get addicted to TVs, Computers (laptops) where they engage in computer games or chatting via internet and other staffs most of the time, and for such children, their creativity and motor skills is usually low (Coolhan K. et al, 2000).

It has been established that increased attention on academics and other enrichment activities by children plus the family due to the effects of technology and modernism has replaced children’s play. After school children rarely get time to play. Instead they are forced to sit at the table and complete their homework given in school. At the same time, their parents put on them pressure to study extensively forgetting to spare any little time for play (Ginsberg K., 2001).

In addition, schoolchildren are allocated less free time and fewer physical outlets at school; for example in the U.S.A, many school districts respond to the ‘No Child Left Behind Act of 200137’ by reducing time committed to recess, the creative arts, and even physical education in an effort to focus on reading and mathematics. Due to technology, the art of building also does not favor play in children and this trend affects the social and emotional development of children. Moreover, many after-school child care programs prefer an extension of academics and homework completion over organized and free playas well as physical activity.

In conclusion, play generally affects the ability to store new information in children since their cognitive capacity is developed by a significant change in activity. A change in activity does not mean in academic instruction, class topic or formal structured physical education class but strictly free-play recess (Coolhan K.et al., 2000). Less time for play in schools may be contributing to discordant academic abilities between boys and girls. This is because schools with sedentary learning styles have become a difficult place for boys to survive successfully (Almon J., 2004).


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