During the recent holiday break I found myself observing many families with children enjoying the Eid al Adha celebrations in the public parks, in the shopping malls and on the beaches. Watching the children engage in either solitary pursuits or join in games with their siblings or friends led me to wonder why exactly children play and what purpose does it serve? Play is not only difficult to define but has been extensively theorised because of the many parallels between human play and the play of young animals.
However, the psychology of human play involves many aspects that animal studies do not touch upon, such as the use of toys, the role of pretending and the impact of culture. A commonly agreed set of characteristics that distinguish play behaviours from non-play behaviours across all ages, domains and cultures include unique features that are: intrinsically motivated and self-initiated; process orientated; non-literal and pleasurable; exploratory and active, and rule-governed.
A large body of research literature exists that discusses the purposes of children's play, with many theorists suggesting variously that play is an activity with no obvious immediate function; is an activity that is quick and an energetically expensive behaviour; is marked by a relative absence of personal threat and is more often than not a spontaneous act. Where the theorists unite in their views regarding play is that play helps children understand their social world and provides a means through which they can make sense of the adult roles within our society.
One of the earliest psychologists, William James, proposed in 1890 that the perceptual world of an infant was one of "blooming, buzzing confusion". However, since Dr James's pronouncement we have now learned that the early months and years of a child's life are far more organised than the confusion that he extolled. From a neurological perspective we know that the early crawling behaviour of small children and the related perceptual awareness are linked to changes in the motor cortex of the child's brain. Between the age of three and six there is a rapid development of the bundle of fibres (corpus callosum) that connects the two hemispheres of the brain, suggesting that as children experience more and more of the world these lead to a 'hard-wiring' that is necessary for advanced learning to occur. Active brains make permanent neurological connections critical to learning; inactive brains do not. Research on the brain demonstrates that play acts as a scaffold for further development, a vehicle that increases the capabilities of neural structures.
Play also facilitates cognitive functions such as language acquisition, problem solving and reasoning. Through social play children learn about their social world and via their interactions with peers they learn the norms by which their social worlds are governed. Engaging in play and other social activities enables children to interact, to pick up on rules, boundaries and norms for behaviours, all while being immersed in some other, often imaginary world.
Children learn directly through play pursuits. For example, they teach each other how to do something and are informed of the rules of a game by another child. Indirect or vicarious learning occurs when the child observes the behaviour of other children and then copies it. Children quite often reinforce or punish behaviour that they consider inappropriate and by setting rules and boundaries within the sphere of their play they are learning lessons for adulthood.
Just as play can provide a preparatory role for life as an adult, it also serves a key evolutionary function. By learning social boundaries and norms through play, children learn how to function effectively in a social group. Groups work best (in survival terms) if all members are aware of the rules of behaviour that govern it. If the group splits into factions under pressure then its effectiveness is reduced. When playing, children form strong friendships. With friendship comes a sense of loyalty and of commitment. These principles are essential to ensure group cohesiveness. Groups provide safety and protection as well as power and persuasiveness - each of which are important concepts to ensure the survival of the species. Play, then, serves as a vehicle by which children can learn the important values of their culture and 'try on' adult roles in the security of their own play world. In so doing, juvenile role-playing serves as a precursor to adult decision-making. As adults, these skills, if honed in youth, should lead to more competent problem solving, aiding in their own survival as well as that of their group.
The crucial importance of play in the child development is highlighted by the rare cases when children are discovered to have been deprived of play and related activities for long periods of time. One of the most infamous cases is that of the child called Genie who was discovered in 1970 in California at the age of 13. She had spent her entire life isolated in a small room and had not been spoken to by her parents or brother since her infancy. Genie lived in virtual isolation. Naked and restrained by a harness, she was left to sit on a 'potty seat' all day, every day, being able to only move her hands and feet. She was given no toys and had nothing to listen to. When she was found Genie had to be taught how to walk and to be toilet trained and she had many antisocial habits (e.g. salivating and spitting constantly). Genie also had very little speech, asked no questions and over time her memory and perceptive qualities were diminished.
Cases like Genie's are thankfully rare but nevertheless serve to emphasise how deprivation and isolation can severely impinge on the healthy social, emotional, cognitive, creative and physical development of children, and highlight the imperatives of play. Play is a powerful, natural behaviour that makes a vital contribution to every child's learning and development. Rather than being seen as mere indulgence, play occupies a central role in the life and growth of a child. As adults we have a major responsibility in fostering children's play and as parents and teachers we must provide stimulation, attitudes and insight that support the development of each child's potential.
Dr Carol Campbell is an associate professor in the Department of Natural Sciences and Public Health at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi