Session 16/19

Page 2/6 Introduction: What is play?

Introduction: What is play?

Children and adults in every culture play – but why is play so important? Play is part of children’s exploration behaviour: if a child feels secure it will start exploring, playing, and socializing with caregivers and other children. When playing, the brain starts growing, and the child exercises important basic skills it will need later in life: how to keep balance, control its body parts, and learn the rules of how to cooperate with others. You can see a child play the same game again and again, until it has developed a perfect skill. Play is the first way of learning.

Playing improves children’s school performance, and prepares the skills for adult life: concentration, memory, the ability to accept that a lot of failed attempts are needed to acquire a skill, the ability to cooperate and synchronize with others when you play, dance, or sing together. The ability to understand rules, etc. The most important aspect of play is simply: it is fun! Even sad children suffering from severe stress will immediately start enjoying life when you invite them for a play activity.

All over the world a wide variety of games have been known for centuries, ranging from card and board games to role-playing games and dice games. Archaeological findings prove that Africans have been engaged in games for centuries.
Play is so important that the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child formally has recognized it in its Article 31: the right of the child to rest and leisure, and to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.

The importance of play has to do with the unique possibilities it offers to children and their development. Research points to three principles that are essential for caregivers in order to strengthen children’s well-being and development;

  1. Supporting responsive relationships
  2. Strengthening core life skills
  3. Reducing sources of stress.

Play is a way to support all three. Through play children develop friendships, negotiate relationships, learn about emotions like jealousy, anger and boredom and get in contact with nature and their surrounding environment. Play is essential to children’s development because it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being. Additionally, play also offers an ideal opportunity for caregivers to engage fully with their children and experience mutual joy.


Research shows that play is very beneficial for children’s development. It improves health, quality of life, and is important for healthy brain development. It allows children to engage and interact with the world around them, to create and explore as well as conquer fears.

Through play children:

  • Build confidence and increase self-esteem and self-respect
  • Develop their social skills, language and communication
  • Learn how to care for others and the environment
  • Develop physical skills and improve their physical health
  • Develop their connection to the community
  • Build resilience by taking risks, solving problems and dealing with new situations

Play is a way that easily helps children learn. Different aspects of play support the intellectual, physical and social/emotional development of children. Research shows that the ability to learn in school is much improved if play is part of everyday life.

Intellectual development

Children develop intellectually by all kinds of play. Imagine a child that is building a brick tower. In order to build the tower, the child is using developing and planning skills when designing the tower. Moreover, the child will learn how to control disappointment when the tower collapses. The child will keep trying until it has proudly mastered its movements. This way it learns problem-solving skills. Here is a list of other play activities that support the intellectual development of children:

  • Sorting toys and solving puzzles helps children learn numbers and shapes
  • Card games and board games help enhance children’s learning behavior and academic development
  • Making up own games helps children interpret, relate to and explore the world around them
  • Learning songs and singing helps improve the language development


Physical development

Children’s physical development is strongly supported by play. For instance, small children pushing and pulling toys as well as picking up small things support the development of basic motor skills. Older children develop physical and motor skills by throwing, catching, climbing and writing.

Learning how to move our body smoothly – legs, arms, hands and muscles – is called “motor skills”. The development of motor skills can easily be supported by building small tracks of “hilltops” from tree stumps or stones and asking the children to only have one foot on one top at the time. Similarly, children’s balance can be improved by placing planks between two tree stumps, so the children can challenge their balance skills.

Example: Nadege is six years old. She was found in the streets when she was around two years old. She had not been stimulated, so she walks like a little hunchback, and her sense of balance is very poor – she sometimes falls, and she walks like a one-year old. Her foster mother makes a game with her: who can keep a basket on the head for the longest time. Even though she can easily do it, the foster mother often loses the basket, and they both laugh while exercising. After a few weeks, Nadege can proudly walk a long way without losing the basket, and now she walks graciously with a straight body posture. Because it was a play activity, Nadege kept trying. She would never have learned this if she had been scolded or told often to straighten her body.

Social/ emotional development

Through play, social interactions become relationships. Play strengthens the relationship between caregiver and child through interaction around play. By playing with their children, caregivers get to know the child better, enhancing the loving relation and communication between caregiver and child.

Playing alongside and with others, copying adults and practicing adult tasks and roles supports the social and emotional development of children. Moreover, activities like listening to music, pretend playing and playing with rules helps children to develop socially and emotionally. Skills developed in play become working skills later in life.

Play is important for the development of creative problem-solving skills. Research shows that children and young adults with good creative problem-solving skills are better at managing and coping with everyday problems and challenges. This is a skill that becomes more and more important in a rapidly changing world.

Example: Imagine two friends: Gahiki and Mazimpaka are seven years old. They have made up a role-play: Gahiki is a policeman, trying to catch Mazimpaka, who drove too fast in his car. They often discuss and argue about the rules, so they both learn how to negotiate terms, reach an agreement, as well as being flexible. So, by playing simple role-play children learn and explore competencies that are crucial for adulthood.

Remember, play is joy. Each child develops in its own ways and in its own time. Try not to push your child, or compare your child and its abilities with other children.


Play can take many forms. Any form or type of play is beneficial for children’s development. Children can play with toys, with clothes, with boxes, with paint or in the environment with sand and water. The different types of play each help the children develop certain abilities.

For instance:

  • Playing in the environment with sand and water introduces children to science and math e.g. by learning about what is fluid, solid and how to measure things in containers and boxes
  • Drawing or painting pictures, playing with dolls and dressing up supports children’s creativity, imagination as well as expression of feelings
  • Building blocks and different shaped toys support the ability to recognize different shapes, put things in order, develop logic thinking etc.
  • Playing ball games, dancing, running, climbing – all these activities help to develop physical skills, strength, flexibility and coordination skills.
  • Singing and dancing is often part of playing. It promotes body control and the sense of rhythm in all activities.

It is often believed that children need to own many toys in order to play. Yet, research shows that toys which allow children to use their own imagination and create own games, are toys, which help them enjoy life, as they get older. Making toys from what you have around you is part of the play process. A used can and some spare wire can become a car. Dolls can be made from bits of clothes and branches. Constructing toys helps children learn to imagine and construct. So, children do not need a vast selection of toy to develop healthy brains. All they need is a few simple tools that can stimulate their own imagination and creativity.


Example: Mugabo is a father is good at repairing cars. He can see that many young boys are bored and make a lot of trouble. He invites his eleven-year old son and children from the neighbourhood, to build a small car from scrap materials from his shop. In the process, they learn a lot about real cars, how to remember all parts when assembling it, and how to use tools. When completed, they push the car around the streets all day. Mugabo’s son becomes very popular with the other boys and is nicknamed “Mugabo The Mechanic”.

Toys that are valuable to younger children are paper and paint, water and sand, mud, a garden or park, pots and pans, wooden spoons and blocks, dolls, animals or insects to watch, boxes in different shapes, old clothes to dress up in. A few toys that support children in being creative (such as dress up costumes and toys they get help to make themselves) are much more valuable than large numbers of expensive toys.