The Importance of Being Playful

Bodrova E. & Leong, D. J. (2003). “The Importance of being playful.” Educational Leadership. 60(7) 50-54.

This article discusses the importance of “mature play” in children’s development and offers some guidelines to support it. (Interestingly, there was a recent article in NYT magazine that describes the connection btw mature play and executive function. The authors are mentioned, as well as a curriculum they’ve developed called Tools of the Mind.)

When children are properly supported in their play, the play does not take away from learning but contributes to it (Bergen, 2002).

Jean Piaget (1962) and Lev Vygotsky (1978) were among the first to link play with cognitive development.

In a comprehensive review of numerous studies on play, researchers found evidence that play

  • Contributes to advances in “verbalization, vocabulary, language comprehension, attention span, imagination, concentration, impulse control, curiosity, problem-solving strategies, cooperation, empathy, and group participation” (Smilansky & Shefatya, 1990).
  • During the preschool years is correlated with children’s readiness for school instruction (Bowman, Donovan, & Burns, 2000; Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, 2002; Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000).
  • Can have a positive effect on children’s ability to master such academic content as literacy and numeracy. For example, children’s engagement in pretend play was found to be positively and significantly correlated with such competencies as text comprehension and metalinguistic awareness and with an understanding of the purpose of reading and writing (Roskos & Christie, 2000).

How Play Evolves

  • Emerges gradually as the child moves from infancy to preschool.
  • At first focus is on actual objects; later, focus is on the people who use the objects in social interaction.
  • By age 4, they begin to develop more complex play with multiple roles and symbolic uses of props
  • As children grow older, they tend spend more time playing sports and board or computer games, where they follow the established rules and rarely have a chance to discuss, negotiate, or change those rules—an important skill that contributes to the development of social competence and self-regulation.
  • When learning to play games builds on the foundation of well-developed pretend play, children get an opportunity to both develop and apply their social and self-regulation skills. When pretend play is completely replaced by sports or other organized activities, however, these important foundational skills might not develop fully.

Characteristics of Mature Play
— Mature play contributes to children’s learning and development in many areas that immature play does not affect (Smilansky & Shefatya, 1990).

  • Imaginary situations. In mature play, children assign new meanings to the objects and people in a pretend situation. When children pretend, they focus on an object’s abstract properties rather than its concrete attributes. They invent new uses for familiar toys and props when the play scenario calls for it. Sometimes children even describe the missing prop by using words and gestures. In doing so, they become aware of different symbolic systems that will serve them later when they start mastering letters and numbers.
  • Multiple roles. The roles associated with a theme in mature play are not stereotypical or limited; the play easily includes supporting characters. For example, playing “fire station” does not mean that the only roles are those of firefighters. Children can also pretend to be a fire truck driver or a phone dispatcher. When children assume different roles in play scenarios, they learn about real social interactions that they might not have experienced (not just following commands but also issuing them; not only asking for help but also being the one that helps). In addition, they learn about their own actions and emotions by using them “on demand.” (I am really OK, but I have to cry because I am playing a baby and the doctor just gave me a shot.) Understanding emotions and developing emotional self-control are crucial for children’s social and emotional development.
  • Clearly defined rules. Mature play has clearly defined rules and roles. As children follow the rules in play, they learn to delay immediate fulfillment of their desires. A child playing “customer” cannot take an attractive toy if the toy—a scale or a cash register—is the prop for the role of the “checker.” Thus, mature play helps young children develop self-regulation. To stay in the play, the child must follow the rules.
  • Flexible themes. Mature play usually spans a broad range of themes that are flexible enough to incorporate new roles and ideas previously associated with other themes. When children play at a more mature level, they negotiate their plans. For example, when playing “hospital” or “store,” children can create a new play scenario in which a doctor goes to the grocery store to buy medicine for the hospital or a cashier in a grocery store gets sick and is taken to the hospital. By combining different themes, children learn to plan and solve problems.
  • Language development. A mature level of play implies an extensive use of language. Children use language to plan their play scenario, to negotiate and act out their roles, to explain their “pretend” behaviors to other participants, and to regulate compliance with the rules. In doing so, they often need to modify their speech (its intonation, register, and even choice of words) according to the requirements of a particular role or as they switch from talking in a pretend way to talking for real. As the repertoire of roles grows, so do children’s vocabulary, mastery of grammar and practical uses of language, and metalinguistic awareness.
  • Length of play. Mature play is not limited to one short session, but may last for many days as children pick up the theme where they left off and continue playing. Creating, reviewing, and revising the plans are essential parts of the play. Staying with the same play theme for a long time allows children to elaborate on the imaginary situation, integrate new roles, and discover new uses for play props.

How Teachers Can Support Imaginative Play

  • Create imaginary situations. A good way to guide children in the development of imaginary situations is to provide multipurpose props that can stand for many objects. If children are not ready to make their own props and will not play without realistic props, teachers can combine multipurpose props with realistic
    ones to keep play going and then gradually provide more unstructured materials.
  • Integrate different play themes and roles. Teachers should use field trips, literature, and videos to expand children’s repertoire of play themes and roles. teachers should point out the “people” part of each new setting—the many different roles that people have and how the roles relate to one another. Learning about the new roles, language, and actions will help children reenact them later in their play.
  • Sustain play. Children who put effort into planning their future play tend to stay longer with their chosen play theme and get less distracted by what is happening in other areas of the classroom. Planning helps children communicate about the roles and describe what the person in each role can and cannot do.

Bergen, D. (2002). The role of pretend play in children’s cognitive development. Early Childhood Research and Practice, 4(1). [Online]. Available:

Bodrova, E., & Leong, D. J. (2001). The Tools of the Mind Project: A case study of implementing the Vygotskian approach in American early childhood and primary classrooms. Geneva, Switzerland: International Bureau of Education, UNESCO.

Bodrova, E., Leong, D., Norford, J., & Paynter, D. (in press). It only looks like child’s play. Journal of Staff Development, 2(24), 15–19.

Bodrova, E., Leong, D. J., Paynter, D. E., & Hensen, R. (2002). Scaffolding literacy development in a preschool classroom. Aurora, CO: Mid-continent Research for
Education and Learning.

Bodrova, E., Leong, D. J., Paynter, D. E., & Hughes, C. (2002). Scaffolding literacy development in a kindergarten classroom. Aurora, CO: Mid-continent Research for
Education and Learning.

Bowman, B., Donovan, M. S., & Burns, M. S. (2000). Eager to learn: Educating our preschoolers. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. (2002). Set for success: Building a strong foundation for school readiness based on the social-emotional development of young
children. Kansas City, MO: Author.

Piaget, J. (1962). Play, dreams, and imitation in childhood. New York: Norton.

Roskos, K., & Christie, J. F. (Eds.). (2000). Play and literacy in early childhood: Research from multiple perspectives. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Shonkoff, J. P., & Phillips, D. A. (Eds.). (2000). From neurons to neighborhoods: The science of early childhood development. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Smilansky, S., & Shefatya, L. (1990). Facilitating play: A medium for promoting cognitive, socio- emotional, and academic development in young children. Gaithersburg, MD: Psychological and Educational Publications.

Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


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