Children’s play is serious business

Aruna Sankaranarayanan

In the last of a tetrad of articles on promoting creativity in children, I elaborate on the positives of play. Just as painting, playing the piano and participating in pantomimes can endow children with various skills and dispositions, good, old-fashioned play is one of the most underrated forms of creative expression. When kids play, either solo, in dyads or in small groups, they acquire a gamut of skills. Play, by being so multifaceted and flexible in its scope, taps into physical, cognitive and socioemotional competencies.

In Free to Learn, eminent psychologist, Peter Gray, argues that children’s natural instinct to explore and play actually underlies their ability to learn. Unfortunately, rues Gray, formal schooling often hampers this innate drive, limiting children’s spontaneous growth and development. As children spend an increasing number of hours in structured activities both in and out of school, they have less and less time for free play, with detrimental consequences we fail to recognize. Psychological problems in pre-teens and teens are on the rise, while obesity in children is also a growing concern. If children had more time for play, many of these issues would repair themselves.

For an activity to be deemed as play, it has to fulfil the following criteria, according to Gray. An activity, which is freely chosen, for its own sake rather than some other motive, constitutes play. Most play activities also involve structures or rules, which can be adapted by the players themselves based on mutual agreement. Further, players understand that play is not real in the sense that there are no serious consequences to the outcome of play. And players are alert and attentive to the game without being stressed. Thus, free play, where children have the freedom to choose what they do, for how long and with whom, promotes children’s locus of control. When left to play on their own, children decide what they do, resolve their differences, set and follow their own rules and learn to get along with one another. Ample time and space away from prying adult attention are essential for children to develop.

Gray emphasizes that a playful mindset facilitates “learning, problem solving and creativity.” In one study, two groups of children were asked to make collages. The first group engaged in free play for 25 minutes before doing the collage, while the second group was asked to copy a piece of text for the same duration. When the children’s collages were compared on creativity, the play group outperformed the other group. In another study, young children demonstrated superior logical thinking in a playful context but failed to do so in a more serious setting.

Playing with children of varying ages benefits both younger and older children. The younger ones acquire skills and knowledge by observing and imitating, while the latter cultivate patience, tolerance, self-restraint and hone their leadership skills by nurturing less mature peers.

In Play=Learning, a book edited by Dorothy Singer, Roberta Golinkoff and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, various experts in child development and learning second Gray’s argument that play is central to children’s growth across domains. All children, irrespective of age, and especially those with developmental and emotional issues stand to gain when they play. Unfortunately, our schooling system tends to emphasize intellectual skills over other aspects of human development.

However, as Edward Zigler and Sandra Bishop-Josef point out, cognitive development is intimately interlinked with the “physical, social and emotional systems” and focusing exclusively on the former can lead to thwarted growth that ends up undermining the cognitive system as well. Cognitive preparedness alone is insufficient for learning as children also need to know how to listen to others, take turns, follow rules and regulate their emotions, skills which are often exercised in play. Zigler and Bishop-Josef also point out that pretend play fosters the seeds of abstract thought when kids use objects to represent different things, like using a ruler as a phone. The importance of make-believe play, in a safe and non-threatening environment, is also underscored by Laura Berk, Trisha Mann and Amy Ogan who aver that it enhances self-regulatory skills and helps children acquire rules of the social world.

As children are glued to screens due to the pandemic, video games may not be the best choice for a play activity. But contrary to popular perception, Harvey Bellin and Dorothy Singer make the case that certain video games, designed with a pedagogic purpose, can actually promote academic skills, specifically in populations at-risk for developmental delays. Gray also contends that certain multi-player online video games can provide a fillip to social skills and creativity.

So, just as we encourage children to pursue art, music, drama and dance, we must also ensure that they have sufficient time to be themselves, to do what nature intended them to do. Whatever benefits children accrue from playing are only incidental. As adults, our role is simply to let children play for the sake of playing.

The author’s forthcoming book, Zero Limits: Things Every 20 Something Should Know will be published by Rupa Publications. She can be reached at

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