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Why Play is So Important

Mrs.Alison Priestley
Mrs.Alison Priestley (18 posts) Head of Primary View Profile

Children’s right to play is a human right

On 1 February 2013 the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child adopted a General Comment that clarifies for governments worldwide the meaning and importance of Article 31 of the Convention on the Right of the Child :

Article 31

“That every child has the right to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.

That member governments shall respect and promote the right of the child to participate fully in cultural and artistic life and shall encourage the provision of appropriate and equal opportunities for cultural, artistic, recreational and leisure activity.”

Whenever you watch a child at play you can see total immersion to the world that they are currently  occupying. They have the freedom to be whoever or whatever they choose to be. Much of the evidence from neuroscience suggests that, rather than developing specific skills that may be needed later in adult life, playing is a way of building and shaping the regions of the brain that are concerned with emotion, motivation and reward, and developing a range of flexible responses across a number of adaptive systems that link the brain, the body and the social and physical environment (Burghardt 2005). In addition to this vital process for brain development, play also has a significant part to play in more  physical development of the fine and gross motor skills.

Within the play-based learning environment, young children will have many different ways of representing their thoughts and feelings. Some will choose music, dance or song, others will prefer to tell stories through role-play, drama or using small world resources, but at some point most children will be naturally drawn to represent their ideas through ‘mark-making’.

Before children even learn to hold a pen they begin to explore ‘mark making’ through a range of play based activities. Children prefer dough, fingerpaints, building blocks and threading activities for a long time before becoming really capable or interested in pen/ tool focused handwriting practice. Within this broader play-based learning we can see the  development  and refinement of  the fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination, core body strength and postural control, which is required for the more precise skills and dexterity  of drawing and handwriting.

A very clear example of children only being able to do what they can at the appropriate age and why nurturing the whole body and not focusing in on the tool, the pen or pencil, is so important is from Ruth Swailes, a UK School Improvement Advisor recently shared insightful x-rays of a child's hands at approximately 7 years old in comparison to x-rays from a 5 year old child during the Early Years Foundation Stage.  As an image, it prompts us to think about handwriting and handwriting development occurring “in an age-appropriate way, matched to children’s physical development.”


As you can see clearly from this x-ray image, the physiology of young children’s hands needs to be taken into consideration when asking children to do various activities. It’s not just the size of the child’s hand which changes. The younger child has cartilage which will eventually become bone through the process by which growing cartilage is systematically replaced by bone to form the growing skeleton. This occurs around the ages of 6-8yrs.

From this example of developing mark making we can begin to see that play has many benefits for children. Recent research suggests that children’s access to good play provision can:

  • increase their self-awareness, self-esteem, and self-respect

  • improve and maintain their physical and mental health

  • give them the opportunity to mix with other children

  • allow them to increase their confidence through developing new skills

  • promote their imagination, independence and creativity

  • offer opportunities for children of all abilities and backgrounds to play together

  • provide opportunities for developing social skills and learning

  • build resilience through risk taking and challenge, problem solving, and dealing with new and novel situations

  • provide opportunities to learn about their environment and the wider community.

Play  offers an ideal opportunity for parents to engage fully with their children, to become part of the magical, imaginative world of children as well as feeling more secure knowing that their children are happy, safe and enjoying themselves.

And finally, don't forget how much play is important to all of us…

“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” -George Bernard Shaw