The Importance of Play and the Cognitive Development of Children

The Importance of Play and the Cognitive Development of Children Marlene Joy M. Cepeda Western Governors University Abstract The focus on academic success and high assessment scores has led many educators and administrators to perceive play as an unimportant part of a child’s development. But play does lay a good foundation developmentally for children. Through each different types of play, a child develops the necessary skills in order to succeed. When children are given opportunities to play, they develop the connections and experiences they will use to help them succeed academically.
Since the No Child Left Behind Act was created in 2001, schools have shifted their focus onto academics and achieving high scores for standardized tests. This focus on academics has led many administrators and parents to perceive play as unimportant for children ages birth and five years old. Even though play may seem unimportant to those outside early childhood education, it creates a solid foundation for the child’s cognitive development and future academic success. In 2001, the United States Senate and House of Representatives passed the No Child Left Behind Act that would change the way schools addressed academics.
Schools had to focus on ensuring all students were able to perform and were meeting the state academic standards. Kysilka (2003) wrote “the purpose of the No Child Left Behind Act was to hold schools, local educational agencies and States accountable for improving the academic achievement of all students and identifying and turning around low-performing schools that have failed to provide a high-quality education to their students, while providing alternatives to students in such schools to enable the students to receive a high-quality education” (Kysilka, 2003, p. 00). Since schools and administrators are being held to a standard, parents are looking at these scores to see if the child succeeds or fails. The focus shifting primarily on academics means the time for play is cut short during school hours if not completely removed. More recently, due to state and national emphasis on proficiency text performance, even the small segments of social pretend play time that have been allowed (if not encouraged) in school, such as kindergarten “choice” time and recess breaks are disappearing (Bergen, 2002).

Bergen (2002) writes “the press for “academic readiness” through concentrated and direct teaching of alphabet, number, color, and other skills is now affecting the amount of time allocated for play in preschools” (Bergen, 2002, Challenges and Policy Directions suggested by Recent Research, para. 1). Kindergarten classes now are focused on ensuring their students are prepared academically. Instead of allowing the child to develop naturally, schools are now primarily emphasizing on the academics. Kindergarten students are no longer being taught the basics, like the alphabets, colors, or numbers.
Kindergarten students are now taught to read simple words and do more reading and writing in class. Three- and four-year-olds are now expected to engage in far more early writing and reading activities than ever before (Almon, n. d). Kindergarten programs in the U. S. focus so strongly on teaching literacy, numeracy, and other academic subjects that many children no longer have time to play in kindergarten (Almon, n. d. ). Play time has become unimportant in the schools. Educational psychologist Anthony Pellegrini writes “for many children, the opportunities for such freely chosen play are narrowing” (as cited in Bergen, 2009, p. 28). Pellegini continues “much of their play time at home has been lost to music, dance, or other lessons; participations on sports teams (using adult defined rules); and afterschool homework or test preparation. At the same time, many schools especially those considered to be poor performers, have reduced or eliminated recess” (as cited in Bergen, 2009, p. 428). In the first 5 years of a child’s life, play is crucial for development more so than ensuring that the child understands the ABCs or the colors. Children develop problem solving skills when faced with a challenge in a game or with the object they are playing with.
Children must think about what to do in order to overcome a particular obstacle or challenge. In the process children also use language skills to voice out frustrations, concerns, or questions to help them understand the situation they are experiencing. In 2006, the American Academy of Pediatrics stated “free and unstructured play “is healthy and, in fact, essential for helping children reach important social, emotional, cognitive developmental milestones as well as helping them manage stress and become resilient”” (as cited in Warner, 2009 p. 1).
The Zero to Three Organization (2004) writes “children are naturally curious beings who are motivated to make sense of the world around them. The brain is the only organ that is not fully formed at birth” (Zero to Three Organization, 2004). The Zero to Three Organization (2004) also states “during the first 3 years, trillions of connections between brain cells are being made” (Zero to Three Organization, 2004). A child’s relationships and experiences during the early years greatly influence how her brain grows. Since children are still developing before age 5, it is imperative that they are allowed to develop naturally.
Allowing children to experience play early will help them form those experiences and connections and lay that basic foundation before they begin school. While play may not be regarded as important as the academics to succeed, it plays a vital role in the cognitive development of children. Jean Piaget developed a theory about the cognitive development of young children. Piaget understood through his own observation that children learn logic and reasoning through manipulation of their environment (Dodge, Colker, Heroman, & Bickart, 2009).
Children manipulate the environment through play. Through play, children learn thinking and problem solving skills and understand how the world around them works. Sara Smilansky had created categories of play and described the skills children were learning through each type of play. Smilansky distinguishes four types of play: functional, constructive, dramatic or pretend play, and games with rules (Dodge, Colker, Heroman & Bickart, 2009). When children are actively exploring their world, using their senses and their bodies, this would be described as functional play.
This particular play begins when children are babies and are learning about their world. It is during functional play children begin to make those connections of memories to objects in the present. For example when a baby has learned to hold a rattle, they in turn continue to do this action for every other object they can grab. Functional play is a form of play in which children use their sense and muscles to experiment with materials and learn how things go together (Dodge, Colker, Heroman & Bickart, 2009). As children grow and develop so does the basic understanding of how things work in the world.
Children build upon the skills already learned and find they can create and build new things. These skills are developed through constructive play. Children learn how certain objects fit together through organizing objects, stacking objects, or simply creating something new with those objects. Allen and Marotz describes “the cognitive process includes mental activities such as discovering, interpreting, sorting, classifying, and remembering. All interactions that children experience during their daily activities contribute to their cognitive development” (as cited in Guam Early Learning Guidelines, 2005, p. 21).
Children, ages one year and older, are very observant and can imitate the things they see in the world around them. Using their imagination, children place themselves in different settings, like the doctor’s office, or a school, or even the house. Rubin describes “role enactment is the highest form of symbolic play” (as cited in Umek & Musek, 2001 p. 56). How children use imagination is often based on past experiences. According to Piaget, “assimilation is when children bring in new knowledge to their own schemas and accommodation is when children have to change their schemas to “accommodate” the new information or knowledge.
This adjustment process occurs when learning, as one is processing new information to fit into what is already in one’s memory” (as cited in Powell & Kalina, 2009, p. 3). This play called dramatic play can occur when the child is by themselves or with other children. In dramatic play children typically take on a role, pretend to be someone else, and use real or pretend objects to play out a role (Dodge, Colker, Heroman & Bickart, 2009). Children, ages three to four years old, begin to understand certain things have to be done a certain way.
They learn that there are rules and guidelines that must be followed not only for reasons of safety, but the safety and well-being of others. This lesson can be taught to children, ages three to four years old, through games with rules. Some games require lots of movement and lots of room; dodge ball, kickball, musical chairs. Some games can be played on tables with a small number of people; bingo, Uno, go fish. Through this type of play, children not only use their muscles, both big and small, but they learn to communicate with their friends or teammate in the game.
Children also learn to respect the others when it is their turn and learn to follow the rules. This type of play requires the children to use many of senses, teach them to play well with others, and respect everyone who is playing the game. There are two broad types of games with rules-table games and physical or movement games. Both require children to control their behavior, both physically and verbally, to conform to a structure or preset rules (Dodge, Colker, Heroman & Bickart, 2009). When children are not given the opportunity to play, they may not learn many of skills that are associated with play.
Gould had written “humans, as specialists in non-specialisation, have survived not through rigid and narrow ways of behaving, but through adaptive qualities of quirkiness, flexibility, and unpredictability and sloppiness. ” “These are the essence of play” (as cited in Lester, 2010 p. 16). The ability for children to play is tied to the ability to being creative and imaginative. The skills of being creative and imaginative can be lost or forgotten if children are not able to exercise these skills. Almon (n. d. writes “given the importance of play for children’s physical, social, emotional, and mental development, the demise of play will certainly have serious consequences during childhood and throughout children’s lives” (Almon, n. d. ). Almon (n. d. ) explains “indeed, there is growing concern about what kind of society we are creating if a generation of children grow up without play and the creative thinking that emerges from play” (Almon, n. d. ). To many outside the early childhood education, play may seem unimportant.
Laying the basic foundation for success, play is an integral part of a child’s growth. Children gain many benefits through play. Not only do the children develop social skills through interactions with other children, but they continue to develop their thinking and problem solving skills. The manipulation of the world around them through play helps create those lasting memories and allows for connections of the past experiences to be tied to the experiences of the present. References Almon, J. (n. d. ). The Vital Role of Play in Childhood. Retrieved from http://www. aldorfearlychildhood. org/article. asp? id=5 Bergen, D. & Fromberg, D. P. (2009). Play and Social Interaction in Middle Childhood. Phi Delta Kappan, 90(6), 426-430. Bergen, D. (2002). The Role of Pretend Play in Children’s Cognitive Development. [Supplemental material]. Early Childhood Research & Practice, 4(1) Retrieved from http://ecrp. uiuc. edu/v4n1/bergen. html Dodge, D. T. , Colker, L. J. , Heroman, C. , & Bickart, T. S. (2009). The Creative Curriculum for Preschool. (4th ed. ). Washington, D. C. : Teaching Strategies, Inc. Early Childhood Care & Education Committee. 2005). Guam early learning guidelines for young children ages three to five. Mangilao, Guam: The Guam Department of Public Health & Social Services. Kysilka, M. L. (2003). NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND. Curriculum & Teaching Dialogue, 5(2), 99-104. Lester. S. (n. d. ). Children’s Right to Play: An examination of the importance of play in the lives of children worldwide. Working papers in early childhood development, No. 57. Bernard Van Leer Foundation. Power, K. C. , & Kalina, C. J. (2009). Cognitive and Social Constructivism: Developing tools for and effective classroom.
Education, 130(2), 241-250. Umek. L. , & Musek, P. (2001) Symbolic Play: opportunities for cognitive and language development in preschool settings. Early Years: Journal of International Research & Development, 21(1), 55-64. Doi:10. 1080/09575140020022689 Warner, L. (n. d. ). “You’re It! ”: Thoughts on Play and Learning in Schools. Horace, 24(n2) Zero to Three Organization. (2004). Getting ready for school begins at birth [Brochure]. Retrieved from http://www. zerotothree. org/child-development/social-emotional-development/gettingreadyforschoolbeginsatbirth. pdf

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