When children choose to play, they are not thinking “Now I am going to learn something from this activity.” Yet their play creates powerful learning opportunities across all areas of development, including motor, cognitive and social and emotional skills.
While children are playing, they try out new social skills (sharing toys, agreeing on how to work together with materials), and they often take on some challenging cognitive tasks (such as figuring out how to make a building with smaller blocks when the larger ones are not available).
Through play, children begin to understand the features of patterns that are the foundation for mathematics. For example, by playing with geometric blocks they understand the concept that two squares can form a rectangle and two triangles can form a square.
Pretend or play is especially beneficial: in such play, children express their ideas, thoughts and feelings, learn how to control their emotions, interact with others, resolve conflicts and gain a sense of competence.
Play teaches children leadership as well as group skills. Furthermore, play is a natural tool that children can use to build their resilience and coping skills, as they learn to navigate relationships and deal with social challenges as well as conquer their fears, for example through re-enacting fantasy heroes.
More generally, play satisfies a basic human need to express imagination, curiosity, and creativity, which are key resources in a knowledge-driven world. They help us to cope, to find pleasure, and to use our imaginative and innovative powers.
The critical skills that children acquire through play form part of the fundamental building blocks of future complex “21st-century skills”.