Play into the Future

Because we are all shaped by play

Bernard Suits described play as 'the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles", and what an impeccable way to explain an important, yet often overlooked, part of child development.

Researchers have spent decades striving to understand playful behavior, and although questions remain it has become clear that play is closely linked to children’s development in cognitive, social, and physical domains. On playgrounds, children have the space and freedom to run around wildly while playing monsters and aliens, or clamber around the play equipment while pretending to be monkeys at the zoo. Well-designed playgrounds thus have the potential to support the health and development of the whole child—their physical health, as well as the social and cognitive skills that are so important for successful functioning in the “adult world.”

Developmental Road Maps

From playing peek-a-boo with infants to initiating simple pretend games with toddlers, adults are usually children’s first play partners. Adults contribute to these interactions by scaffolding children’s play—supporting their emerging skills and helping them engage in activities that are just slightly beyond their ability level. For instance, an adult might give a child a boost as she climbs a ladder and then hold her hand as she slides down the slide, gradually helping less and less as the child masters the activity.

In contrast to adult-child play, peer play involves participants who are at a similar level of skill and authority. This makes peer play more demanding than adult-child play—whether children are deciding who gets the next turn on the swings or who gets to be the king in a pretend game, they must take into account each other’s opinions and actively negotiate the rules of play.

Research on children’s peer play in school settings suggests that the ability to play successfully with peers may have consequences for both social and cognitive development. In a series of studies led by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, preschoolers who displayed more positive peer play behaviors also tended to be better-regulated and less disruptive in the classroom. Furthermore, at the end of the school year, these children showed fewer problem behaviors, better literacy and math skills, and greater social engagement.

Losing Playtime

Despite its potentially important role in children’s development, play has been threatened by a series of recent societal shifts. A growing focus on academic achievement and standardized testing has led schools and parents to reduce time for play: schools are limiting recess time for elementary students and the use of play in preschool classrooms, while parents are replacing unstructured play time with organized activities. Together with the increasing availability of passive entertainment (e.g., television) and a lack of safe play spaces—especially in disadvantaged neighborhoods—these factors have led to a significant reduction in play.

Although precise estimates are difficult to come by, one study has suggested that children’s play time decreased by 25 percent between the years of 1981 and 1997, and these levels remained stable through the year 2003. In this climate, considering the role of play in children’s lives, and how it might be promoted through quality play spaces, is more important than ever.

We Play Today

Play has the potential to begin building a foundation of life-long leadership skills such as persistence, empathy and leadership. Weighing the benefits of play against the loss of playtime over recent years, we believe that implementing play into daily life is a key piece in the development of children, as well as creating strong social and familial bonds. Our commitment to bringing safe, challenging play to children throughout Wisconsin is led by the belief that we are shaping our children for a successful, fulfilling future. 

Setting aside time every day for unstructured play offers children the opportunity to develop social, physical, emotional, verbal, and cognitive skills that will serve as the foundation into adulthood. By investing in play today, we can build a new generation of leaders, innovators, and creators who will open the door to a bright future for everyone. 

For a better tomorrow, we play today.

Share how you play with #shapedbyplay online, and see how others play at shapedbyplay.com!