The Power of Play

November 25th, 2014

by Katrina Brooke

Author: Dr. Mary Ruth Moore

What power does play have in the lives of children today? Despite growing mountains of evidence that active, self-directed play is vital to young children’s development, a surprising number of parents and other adults question the value of time spent in play. We are seeing an unprecedented convergence of pressures that endanger the right of every child to play freely: the push down of academics and increased testing, the ubiquitous presence of screens and technology, and increased fear of risk and litigation. In addition, the current generation of parents may not have experienced the wonders of childhood play themselves, so they cannot be expected to value the power of play for their children without help.

The marked decline in play time available to many children in the U.S is well documented by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), which believes that play is a vitally important part of child development and is essential for every child’s health and well-being. Their 2007 position statement on play addresses the wide range of benefits play has for children, including socio-emotional health, physical health, social learning, improvement of problem solving skills, and improved self-regulation (Ginsburg 2007, 182). Other important indicators of future success such as creativity, problem solving, and decision making skills are also benefits of self-directed play. In addition, play is vital to fighting the childhood obesity epidemic (Ginsburg 2006, 3).

The great disconnect between this compelling research and the prevalent attitude among many adults of the insignificance of play places a large responsibility on teachers to lead and model appropriate play practices in their classrooms. As a professor of Early Childhood Education, I personally feel a strong commitment to teach my students—part of the next generation of teachers in America—the tremendous power of play.

Because of the growing misunderstanding of the difference between “entertainment” and “play,” however, many of my students come in thinking that video games, television, or other screen activities are synonymous with the natural play of childhood. Since teaching by example and experience is more memorable than mere instruction, I try to find ways to model how they can facilitate self-directed, active play by providing enough time, space, and appropriate materials. I show them how simple recycled props such as boxes, stuffed animals, hats, clothing, and puppets enhance the children’s play opportunities. I model the use of good children’s literature to prompt meaningful play. Most importantly, following the methods of John Dewey’s, “learning by doing,” I make time for my pre-service teachers to actually guide meaningful play experiences with real children.

During the course of the semester I have my students go out into the community to see real life play experiences around our city. I have a long-running partnership with San Antonio Zoo’s Tiny Tot’s Nature Spot, which was designed to provide highly interactive, positive experiences for young children in nature. The students analyze and document the kinds of cognitive and social play that they observe. They can recognize all of Piaget’s cognitive play categories throughout the play space. The campgrounds and indoor play center promote dramatic play; the tunnels for crawling provide functional or exercise play; the sand area fosters constructive play; and much more. The zoo’s play leaders model excellent practices in guiding and inspiring nature-based play. And the children, naturally engrossed in their play, demonstrate the great value of such opportunities.

Another activity that serves to teach the power of play and nature is planting a garden. Last year we worked with the gardener in a community garden which adjoins the education building. To get outside and dig in the dirt is such a simple thing and yet so powerful. Most of my students had never planted anything before. I could not help but think about the story in Robert Fulghum’s All I Real Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten where he remembers a little seed growing in a cup teaching important lessons of life. I want my students to see firsthand the therapeutic benefits of working in the soil so later, as they become teachers, they can strive to create such experiences for their students.

Perhaps the most important component in teaching the power of play is the annual play day we plan for local school children. Using only basic materials, the students prepare and observe a day of play on our campus. Every year something magical happens, and this year was no exception. The design utilized ordinary cardboard moving boxes. Some quickly became tunnels, mazes, or receptacles for ball play. Other huge boxes were opened to become the walls of a large outdoor art gallery for the children to paint and repaint. Still other boxes formed the walls of a castle, a restaurant, and a veterinary clinic. Nature materials were used for art experiences. Sand and water provided unlimited play opportunities with recycled containers. A treasure box of hats, capes, and other recycled clothing items and props stimulated extensive dramatic play. Everywhere the students looked they could see children running, playing, and talking to each other. Active engagement certainly reigned supreme.

I knew my students were happy with the day’s results, but I did not realize just how much they had learned until I read their reflective papers about the day’s experiences. I was shocked to see that several of my students had doubted that our plan for the event would be successful. In fact, three different students mentioned that they had felt the play day would fail because “we had nothing electronic or anything else that plugged in.” As a result of what they experienced, my students realized that the power of the day seemed to be in the simplest of materials that were brought to life by the children’s imagination and ingenuity. The play day had taught yet another group of young pre-service teachers to believe in the magical powers of play. Now they understand that play is truly essential to the fabric of childhood.

Perhaps Fred Rogers said it best, “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning.” Isn’t the power of play hidden inside the simplest of experiences? That’s what I want pre-service teachers and all adults to see and value.

Ginsburg, K. and et al. 2007. “The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent Child Bonds.” Pediatrics (119)1, January 2007.  American Academy of Pediatrics.
Ginsburg, K. 2006. “No child left inside: reconnecting children with the outdoors.” American Academy of Pediatrics. Testimony before the Natural Resources Subcommittee On National Parks, forests, and Public Lands and Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife, And Ocean.

Mary Ruth Moore

About the Author

Dr. Mary Ruth Mooreis a Professor of Education at the Dreeben School of Education of the University of the Incarnate Word (UIW). Before coming to UIW, she taught 25 years in public elementary schools in Kentucky, Indiana, South Carolina, and Texas. She holds degrees from Baylor University, Butler University, and a doctorate in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Texas at Austin.  In addition to teaching at U.I.W., Dr. Moore provides professional development for teachers at the national, district, and local levels. During the past 22 years at UIW, she has trained thousands of teachers in literacy and play techniques.

You can contact her at:

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