Importance of Play in the Early Childhood Classroom


Importance of Play in the Early Childhood Classroom

EDT 422 Capstone, Dr. Brooks

Charese Pearson


Why is play important in an early childhood classroom? This question has been asked by many and researched thoroughly. Children not only enjoy play but they also benefit from it in many ways, thus the importance of play. Below are research-based explanations about the importance of play and how to incorporate play in the early childhood classroom.

  I. Understanding Play

Play can be a vague term in the educational world because its definition is unclear, especially when putting it in the context of a classroom. Play can be defined as anything a child does within the social context and sometimes it is defined as just "recess" or "free time". There are confusing and conflicting definitions but there are two sure forms of play in the context of education: free play and guided or structured play.

“Much of the confusion surrounding the definition of play is related to the fact that in the child development literature the term play is often used to label most forms of children’s social and nonsocial behavior, regardless of whether it is play or not” (Pellegrini, 2009).

“Virtually all students of play acknowledge the difficulty, or impossibility, of trying to define it” (Pellegrini, 2009).

There is a model that some researchers and educators use to gauge whether play is occuring or not. If what the children are doing has these 5 components then it is probably play (Saracho, 2012):

(a) Nonliterality 

(b) Simulating real emotion

(c) Motivation from within 

(d) Free choice

"Applying these can help distinguish play from work, routines, rituals, and play-related behaviors like exploration and imitation” (Saracho, 2012)

It can be difficult to create an environment where rich play has the ability to occur but having a more clear definition of what play is and what it does can help an educator create that environment.

What is free play?

Free play is student centered play, guided by the students. The students choose how they are going to play and what to play with. There is room for much imagination and creativity in this type of play.

“When children lead play it’s often called ‘free play’” (Free Play and Structured Play, 2014).

 Benefits of free play (Free and Structured Play, 2014):

  • Problem solving skills
  • Conflict negotiation
  • Social-emotional growth
  • Collaboration skills

What is guided or structured play?

Structured play is teacher centered, guided by the teacher. The teacher sets guidelines based on academic content or social skills. The teacher takes control of the play environment by structuring it in such a way that guides students to learn the specific content.

“The game has a defined format, time period, and rules determined in advance" (Free Play and Structured Play, 2014).

Benefits of structured play (Free Play and Structured Play, 2014):

  • Cooperative skills
  • Strategy
  • Following directions
  • Geared toward specific learning content

    II. Why Play?

“Play is essential to development because it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth" (Ginsburg, 2013). 

  • Play is the tool that children use to learn about the world and society. Through play, their social and cognitive needs can be met and developed. Play is the way that children interact with this world and create experiences to understand society and human interactoin.

"Play allows children to create and explore a world they can master, conquering their fears while practicing adult roles, sometimes in conjunction with other children or adult caregivers" (Ginsburg, 2013).

  • Play will help children become self-efficient problem solvers because during play children create and solve their own problems. When a child is asked to solve an academic or real-life problem, they will be able to use the skills that they practice during play to find a solution.

“…play helps children develop new competencies that lead to enhanced confidence and the resiliency they will need to face future challenges” (Ginsburg, 2013).

  • Play contributes to developing the whole child. Through play a child's creativity, physical and cognitive abilities are refined and strengthened. Using play as a tool to teach in the early childhood classroom will bring a wholistic approach to the content and will help develop every part of each child.

Play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength. Play is important to healthy brain development" (Ginsburg, 2013).

“Play is an essential element in early childhood programs, because it provides young children with the opportunity to (1) express their ideas and their feelings, (2) symbolize and test their knowledge of the world, and (3) acquire effective support for academic and pre-academic learning” (Saracho, 2012).

  • Through play, children can synthesize and internalize information that they have learned. After teaching a lesson, letting children play will help them put the information they have just learned into imaginary "real-world" situations. If play cannot be used within the lessons to teach the content, then it is important to use it after the content is taught to help children internalize what they have just learned.

 “Children integrate everything they know in all domains when they play" (Saracho, 2012). 

 “Play is valuable to young children mainly as a medium for learning” (Saracho, 2012).

  • Vygotsky, an educational and child development theorist, was a strong proponent for play based on the child development research that he conducted. One theory that Vygotsky had was that play enhanced children's language and literacy development. He also argued that play enhanced children's cultural experiences and development by giving them "cultural tools", inlcuding language development.
  •  "Similarly Vygotsky (1967) argues that human beings aquire 'cultural tools' that extend their developmental capacity. These cultural tools include language as well as the various ways of knowing that are critical to cultural development" (Saracho, 2012).

    "Vigotsky (1978), who theorized that young children use private speech in play to regulate their behavior, eventually trandforming this private speech into self-regulation through internal thought..." (Bergen, 2002).

    Top 6 Reasons for Play:

    1.  Helps children learn about the world and society
    2. Promotes problem-solving
    3. Promotes creativity, imagination, cognitive, social, and emotional development
    4. Can be used to deepen understanding of classroom content
    5. Enhances language and cultural development
    6. As the research shows, play is an important part of the classroom because it helps develop the child in ways that other pedagogies and strategies cannot. Play is sure to develop the whole child, not just the cognitive parts.

    III. Integrating Play Within Curriculum

    In order to implement play in a structured and effective manner, it should have a place in curriculum. There are many benefits to building curriculum on play. First, it assures that content will be developmentally appropriate. Then, it creates differentiation for the students. This is because play is determined by the students. The students decide what they want to learn or how they will learn through their play. 

    "A way to ensure that education activities are developmentally appropriate and content rich is by developing a curriculum that builds on children's play" (Saracho, 2012).

    Research shows that play has a positive impact on students in their development, therefore it should be a large part of the curriculum in schools. When children are able to select what they learn, they will be more engaged and able to attain the information.

    “Play allows young children to select their learning, especially if it facilitates their attainment of a broad range of developmental goals; therefore, it must be a vital component in the early childhood education curriculum" (Saracho, 2012).

    In the context of education there are two main types of play that can be used in curriculum building: Curriculum-generated play and Play-generated curriculum.

     Curriculum-generated Play:

    • Play helps children learn the academic content
    • Structured and prepared play centers for certain subject areas, such as math and literacy
    • Children engage in the content through the materials in the designated play areas

    "The children's play experiences assist them in learning academic concepts and skills. The play centers are academically enriched..." (Saracho, 2012). 

    Play-generated Curriculum:

    • How the children play determines what is taught
    • Curriculum is based on the students' interests and needs

    "The children's play experiences indicate their interests, which guides the development of the curriculum activities" (Saracho, 2012). 

    Play in Social Studies Curriculum:

    “An effective social studies program offers the children the appropriate environment for them to become productive members of a democratic society” (Saracho, 2012).

    In this book, An Integrated Play-Based Curriculum for Young Children, Saracha gives multiple examples of how to integrate play in a social studies curriculum. Children can role-play in different political positions. Children can have elections and voting opportunities. Social studies also aim to teach children about social interaction, culture, and home life. Children could have a place to play house and take on family roles. There are many different ideas for social studies curriculum.

    Play in Language and Literacy Curriculum:

    Vygotsky believed that language development happens in cultural and social settings. Saracha explains this while describing how language development can work within play. Much language development happens in the social context. Therefore, when children are playing together, they are practicing their language skills and developing further. Language and literacy curriculum can be integrated in all of the content areas.

    Play in Science Curriculum:

    “Science is a process of inquiry (National Research Council, 1996), ‘where knowledge can be uncovered, where questions can be asked and answered’ (Malcom, 1999)” (Saracho, 2012).

    If there is an inquiry-based approach to teaching science, then play will also be incorporated. Through an inquiry-based approach, children get to explore and play to find the answers to their own questions about this natural world.

    Play in Mathematics Curriculum:

    “The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM, 2010) state that mathematics education should use teachable moments that emerge from the children’s everyday play (e.g., building towers of different heights) and everyday experiences (e.g., lining up or distributing snacks)” (Saracho, 2012).

    Letting children use materials in the environment to experiment and play will help them learn about math concepts in a natural way. Also, creating experiences like cooking, measuring, building, etc. in a play setting will enhance their math development. Saracha explains different ideas and theories on how to implement math into a play-based curriculum.

    IV. Importance of Play Resources/Videos

    10 Facts About Play:

    More on Curriculum Building:

    Play in Curriculum by Olivia Saracho

    Data & Research to support importance of play:

    V. Research Resources

    Bergen, D. The Role of Pretend Play in Children's Cognitive Development. Early Childhood Research & Practice. 

    Free Play and Structured Play. (2014, January 1). The Strong. Retrieved June 21, 2014, from

    Ginsburg, K. (2013). The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds. The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds. Retrieved June 21, 2014, from 

    More Than a Toy: Play Fact Shet. (n.d.). . Retrieved June 23, 2014, from

    Pellegrini, A. D. (2009). The role of play in human development. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Saracho, O. (2012). Handbook of Research on the Education of Young Children. : .

    Saracho, O. N. (2012). An integrated play-based curriculum for young children. New York: Routledge. 

    (2012). Kathy Hirsh-Pasek-Importance of Play USA: .