Play in early childhood is often mistakenly viewed as an indulgent activity in which children idly participate. On the contrary however, play is an essential process for development – infants establish and build skills, values, beliefs, habits and strategies of viewing the world. Although interaction (with parents, teachers and other infants) is necessary in early childhood as a part of early education, playing by oneself is also important and effective for learning. Indeed, such play is universal and archaeological evidence suggests that it has been a part of early childhood development for thousands of years. Indeed, play in early childhood is one of the most productive activities in which a child can participate. There are various ways in which play is pivotal in early childhood; this article explores three of them.

  • Skill development

Skill development is most noticeable when watching children play alone with toys. For example, even when a baby shakes a rattle, he or she learns how to manipulate objects, and how to control movement skills to some degree. The more a child plays, the more advanced these skills become. Moreover, play in early childhood allows for the combination of different senses in skill development. Once again, a child playing with a rattle is a perfect example – touching, seeing, hearing (and often tasting and smelling) such objects and toys allow for action depending on the coordination of different senses. The sequences of such actions become more and more complex as the child learns. Moreover, play fosters problem-solving abilities.

  • Social development

Once a child begins playing with other children, he or she starts to learn how to socialise in the surrounding world. Parents are the first people with whom infants socialise; thus, the shift from interacting with them to interacting with children of the same age is monumental. In this social environment, they learn how to share, take turns and how to compromise. The art of balance is learnt through the desire to maintain healthy relationships with others, while simultaneously achieving one’s objectives (for example by obtaining access to a particular toy). Likewise, play in early childhood teaches children the importance of consideration, kindness and patience. These are all valuable social skills.

  • Imagination and creativity

Play in early childhood also stimulates children’s imaginations, and allows them the space to express creativity. Roleplay, for instance, allows the child to take on different characters and roles – such as doctors, police officers, princes and princesses, librarians etc. In order to take on these roles, children process the differences between these characters and themselves. They must understand what makes them ‘not doctors’ in the real world, for example. Then, when imagining themselves as doctors, they are required to know what doctors do, how they go about doing their work etc. In addition, a child who admonishes or even hurts, say, a doll or a stuffed animal for ‘misbehaving’ is a healthy way in which to express anger, frustration or aggression. Instead of inflicting harm on other children or on caregivers, children express themselves through play in early childhood with make-believe interactions with inanimate objects.