Recognizing the Importance of Play in Children’s Lives

By Meg Carter, ChildFund Sponsorship Communication Specialist

Long before recorded history, children played. From the beginning, their play took three outward forms: conflict, imitation and chance. Play as conflict appears in games of skill and competitive sports. We associate imitation with cooperative games, such as role playing and creative or imaginative play. Games of chance — most familiar to us in cards and dice — often involve sticks, stones, shells, beads, or bones in developing countries.   

jumping rope

In Vietnam, a girl jumps rope.

We also know now that play is critical to children’s development, and many who live in developing countries do not have the time and opportunity to play with their peers, to lay down their worries for a moment and just be children.

Today is Universal Children’s Day, an event that aims for greater understanding of and among children of all nations. Its roots are in a 1954 United Nations conference when officials recommended that each country set aside a day for children. Nov. 20 has special meaning as the date on which the U.N. General Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of the Child in 1959 and, 30 years later, the Convention on the Rights of the Child. 

Educators describe play as the young child’s work. It’s more than self-expression. Unstructured play teaches children about the natural world, themselves and society. Through play, children develop motor and cognitive skills, learn cultural values and mature in emotional intelligence. Strategic thinking, pattern matching, problem solving, math mastery, negotiation, sensitivity to others and conflict resolution are just the beginning of play’s hidden benefits.

Kenya game

Children in Kenya play a jumping game.

If child’s play is the foundation of our intellectual, social, physical and emotional development, then play is education. And if education is human development, then development truly begins when each young child plays.

Last year, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon launched Global Education First (GEFI), a new initiative raising the political profile of education. Its premise is that education leads to gender equality, economic opportunity, health and environmental sustainability. GEFI aims to put every child in school, provide them all with quality education and, ultimately, transform children into global citizens.

ChildFund also seeks to improve educational opportunities and learning environments in every community where we work.

Having taught both here in the United States and in Africa, I know there’s more to education than schools, equipment, materials and instructors, essential as they are. The Declaration of the Rights of the Child reminds us: “The child shall have full opportunity for play and recreation.”

circle game

In Honduras, a circle game.

Play is universal; it comes naturally. Kids everywhere turn anything into a game. Think of hide-and-seek, kick-the-can, string games, Simon Says, clapping rhymes, rope skipping and hopscotch. You find them in Virginia, Eastern Europe, Southern Asia, Latin America and West Africa. In ChildFund International’s lobby, we have toys created by children in the countries we serve, playthings that demonstrate resourcefulness and creativity.

In developing countries, children play with scrap materials. A stick turns a wheel rim into a perpetual motion machine. Gathering up discarded plastic shopping bags, village boys weave them into soccer balls. Empty aluminum cans and bottle caps morph into toy animals or race cars. In a girl’s hands, a bit of cloth, some string and a corn husk become a doll.

Here in the United States, we’re blessed with leisure and money to spend on play dates, soccer lessons and computer games. But when play becomes our babysitter, we tend to forget its true value in children’s lives.

Kristina, a tutor at an Early Childhood Development center in Indonesia, often makes toys from available resources, including recycled materials, that teach her children about shapes and numbers. “With these resources, they get to play with a range of different educational toys, and we know that they are learning while enjoying being a child,” she says. “I wish I had these when I was a child.”

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