"Play Is The Work of the Child" Maria Montessori                   Where do the Children Play?, Cat Stevens, 1970

The benefits of play are well-known and undisputed. Through play, children are learning how things work,
how to use their bodies, how to solve problems, and how to get along with others. Play is an avenue through
which children can express their emotions, build relationships with others, and master difficult

Play activities are essential to healthy development for children and adolescents.  Research shows that
75% of brain development occurs after birth.  The activities engaged in by children both stimulate and
influence the pattern of the connections made between the nerve cells.  This process influences the
development of fine and gross motor skills, language, socialization, personal awareness, emotional well-
being, creativity, problem solving and learning ability.

The most important role that play can have is to help children to be active, make choices and practice
actions to mastery.  They should have experience with a wide variety of content (art, music, language,
science, math, social relations) because each is important for the development of a complex and integrated
brain.  Play that links sensory-motor, cognitive, and social-emotional experiences provides an ideal setting
for brain development.

According to Montessori, the essential dimensions of play are:

  • Voluntary, enjoyable, purposeful and spontaneous
  • Creativity expanded using problem solving skills, social skills, language skills and physical skills
  • Helps expand on new ideas
  • Helps the child to adapt socially
  • Helps to thwart emotional problems

If play is the work of the child, toys are the tools.  Through toys, children learn about their world,
themselves, and others.  Toys teach children to:

  • Figure out how things work
  • Pick up new ideas
  • Build muscle control and strength
  • Use their imagination
  • Solve problems
  • Learn to cooperate with others

Play content should come from the child’s own imagination and experiences.   Unfortunately, the play
experience for today’s child is often quite different from that of their parents.  With the ever expanding
influence of electronic media including TV, videos, video games and the internet, children are spending
much of their time being passively entertained by or minimally interacting by way of a keyboard or control
pad with an electronic device.   

Even today’s toys are more structured often by onboard computers that dictate the play experience.  This
robs children of unstructured play with other kids as well as individual playtime spent in creative play.  
Parents need to understand the play needs of their child and provide an environment to meet those needs.  

Play is the way that children work out their emotional issues, their fears, and their anxieties. It's the way
they develop a self, a way they develop a sense that they are important people who have ideas to share and
who can get along with other people.  Unfortunately, child-initiated, imaginative play is losing out to
academic training and programmed activities in young children's lives, in part because many adults are
unaware of the direct links between children's play and their healthy emotional, social, and intellectual

In a 3-part article from the Post-Gazette, Karen MacPherson writes, "More and more toys are "licensed,"
meaning they are based on television shows, movies and sometimes books.  Unlike "open-ended" toys, such
as clay and blocks that can be used in numerous ways, media-based toys are generally single-purpose
playthings.  "They 'tell' children how to play and can channel them into playing particular themes in
particular ways -- merely using the toys to try to imitate what they see on the TV and movie screen.  As a
result, their imagination, creativity and ability to find interesting problems to explore and solve -- the very
foundation that contributes to children's success in school -- can all be undermined."

The benefits of unstructured play are so great that experts urge parents to try to find an hour a week for it.
And they offer these tips to make getting started easier:

  • Limit television.
  • Limit other "screen" time.
  • Choose toys carefully.
  • As much as possible, send your children outside to play.
  • Spend time watching your child play.

See all three parts of this article:

Development experts say children suffer due to lack of unstructured fun

2.  Creative play makes better problem-solvers

3.  Experts call unstructured play essential to children's growth

A fantastic paper published at the Association for Childhood Education International Website:

The Alliance for Childhood has A Campaign to Restore Creative Play and Hands-on Learning in Preschools
and Kindergartens.  See "
In Defense of Childhood" and the Play Fact Sheet (PDF)

Read an excerpt (Chapter 9, Big A, Little a) from the book, "A Child's Work: The Importance of Fantasy Play"

See our Developmental Toys for 0-3 page,  Back to Basics page, and Store for toys your kids will enjoy.

Floor-Time Strategies For Children,  Adapted From Stanley Greenspan and Serena Wieder

The most important element of floor-time is your shared enjoyment of an activity with your child. If you two
are having fun, then you're definitely on the right track!

Follow your child's lead and join him or her. It doesn't matter what you do together as long as you are
sharing the activity.
  • Use gestures, tone of voice, and body language to accentuate the emotion in what you say and do.
  • Give symbolic meaning to objects as you play (When your child climbs to the top of the sofa, pretend he is
    climbing a tall mountain, when she slides down the slide at the playground, pretend she is sliding into the ocean
    and watch out for the fish)
  • As you play, help your child elaborate on his intentions. Ask who is driving the car, where the car is going,
    whether he has enough money, did he remember the keys, why he's going there, why not somewhere else, and
    so on. Expand as long as you can.
  • Make use of breakdowns. When a problem crops up during play, create symbolic solutions. Get the doctor kit
    when the doll falls so your child can help the hurt doll, get the tool kit for the broken car, etc. Acknowledge your
    child's disappointment and encourage empathy.
  • Get involved in the drama. Be a player and take on a role with your own figure. Talk directly to the dolls
    sometimes rather than always questioning your child about what is happening.
  • Both help your child and be your own player. Talk as an ally (perhaps whispering), but also have your figure
    oppose or challenge your child's ideas.
  • Insert obstacles into the play. For example, make a bus block the road. Then, speaking as a character,
    challenge your child to resolve the problem. If necessary, get increasingly urgent (whispering to child to
    encourage her to deal with the problem, offering help if needed by becoming an ally).
  • Use play to help your child understand and master ideas/themes which may have frightened him. Work on
    fantasy and reality.
  • Let your child be the director. Her play need not be realistic, but encourage logical thinking.
  • Focus on process as you play: which character to be, what props are needed, when ideas have changed, what
    the problem is, when to end the idea, etc. Identify the beginning, middle, and end.
  • As you play, match your tone of voice to the situation. Pretend to cry when your character is hurt, cheer loudly
    when your character is happy, speak in rough or spooky tones when you're playing the bad guy.
  • Reflect on the ideas and feelings in the story, both while playing and later on, as you would with other real-life
  • Discuss your child's abstract themes such as good guy/bad guy, separation/loss, and various emotions such as
    closeness, fear, jealousy, anger, bossiness, competition, etc. Remember that symbolic play and conversation is
    the safe way to practice, reenact, understand, and master the full range of emotional ideas and experiences.

See The "Greenspan" Floor Time Model for specific details and Floor Time Basics for an overview.

The Three Sisters website (link below) has wonderful articles on play, the philosophy of play, toy tips for all
ages, and how to create a play space.  Their website has beautiful, natural, open-ended and Waldorf-
inspired toys for children that you can not resist! And they have a great wish-list page so friends and family
don't waste time & money getting toys that your kids will forget about the next day.

Also see our
Natural Toys page.  Find a play therapist near you at the Association for Play Therapy.

Barbara Cushing,  (831)426-8408
E-mail: bcush@cruzio.com
Degree: MSW  Credential: LCSW
Santa Cruz, CA 95060

Play Power, Sharron Krull, (925)980-8353   
E-mail: sharron@sharronkrull.com
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Use the information provided on this site as an educational resource for determining your options and making your
own informed choices. It is not intended as medical advice or to diagnose, prescribe, or treat any specific illness.
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