The Importance of Play

An Interview with Dr. Jennifer Mata-McMahon

Play is a major part of childhood. Kids run around outside, hiding from one another, racing, or kicking a soccer ball. Some spend hours play-acting scenes with dolls, dinosaurs, cars, or ponies. They build structures with blocks. They bake pretend cakes in miniature kitchens and sell groceries from a make-believe store. It may look like they are doing nothing constructive by adult standards, but Dr. Jennifer Mata-McMahon, who teaches Early Childhood Education at the University of Maryland (Baltimore), says play is more important than we realized. She talks about the ways play encourages physical, social-emotional and spiritual development in preschool kids.


Interview with Dr. Jennifer Mata-McMahon

Welcome. I’m Erin Reibel, and I’m here talking to Dr. Jennifer Mata-McMahon, who’s the Associate Professor of Early Childhood Education at the University of Maryland, their Baltimore campus. Jen, we’re so happy that you’re here and have joined us on Real Kids, Real Faith. And one of your research interests is the role of play in children’s lives. So can you tell me a little bit from your perspective, what is play?

So, as adults, we typically dismiss any activity that children do that is not academic or not a learning activity, and we call it play. So anything that children do that keeps them engaged, but non-academic, we call it play. Yet there are core elements to play. So in a learning environment where we’re talking to educators, when I’m working in teacher preparation programs with teachers in training, I encourage them to do a lot of free play in their classroom, as much as they can with the limitations that they have with the curriculum and the guidelines by the school. But there are core elements then because it’s not just, okay, let them engage in whatever or propose situations in which children can engage.

So the core elements of play are, one, it needs to be intrinsically motivated. So what does that mean? That the children are engaging in an activity without any rewards or external motivators. So they’re doing it because they want to do it. So it’s an intrinsically motivated activity. It also has to be freely chosen by the child. So it’s not suggested by adults. It’s something that the child freely selects and wants to do. It’s also an activity that’s pleasurable, that’s enjoyable, that is an engaging activity for the child. It tends to be active, so the child is actively engaged in this activity and is not passively observing.

It also tends to be self-oriented and not object oriented. So this goes back to it’s intrinsically motivated for the child. It’s they’re deciding, they’re directing it, they’re designing the experience, and it’s then for its own sake. So play is done for play’s sake and not necessarily to achieve a goal. Although there are games with rules, which are also a type of play, and typically those games get competitive and there’s a winner or a group that wins. But in essence, free play, it’s not necessarily to achieve a goal. And the other component, which I think is my favorite component of play, is that it often engages the child in this make-believe fantasy world where they are creative and can bring that world to life in their play scenarios.

Thank you so much for that large description, in-depth description of play in those different aspects. Why, then, is play so important?

Well, when we’re thinking about early childhood, we typically think about development, right? When we think about learning and academics, but when we engage with children, we think about them and in the different aspects of development. And play is immensely important for children’s development. Maria Montessori stated that play is the child’s work. She gave it that importance. This is how children learn, through play.

And from that approach, play sometimes has been called the real pretend. So it’s how they learn, how they engage with their environment, how they make sense of it, how they understand it. And through imaginative play, for example, role play, pretend play, children role play these scenarios and take on the roles of the adults in situations that they either have witnessed or been part of and are able to express then their emotions, process their emotions in a safe, familiar way for them, in an environment that is familiar to them. Social emotional development is also fostered through play. Interactions with peers allow for children to develop friendships, to assume leadership roles, to gain autonomy and independence. They learn to collaborate. They learn to work together for a common goal.

They have these experiences through play that also facilitate receptive and expressive language development. So their language skills are also developed through play. They learn to communicate through play. And if we look at cognitive development, play fosters development of imagination, of creativity, as well as problem-solving, negotiating, decision-making. Children easily engage with numeracy and literacy through play, so that facilitates the development of those academic skills. If we look at physical development, also rough-and-tumble play that we often see boys more engaged in than girls, allows for gross motor skills to be developed. And more slow-paced kind of play, like playing with puzzles or building blocks, also helps develop fine motor skills. So play is crucial for development, and in all areas of development, we can see how they are impacted and nurtured through the experience of free play.

How is play valuable for spiritual development?

For spiritual development, I think play… The connection:  I’ve looked at this before, looking at developmentally appropriate practice and how that correlates then with what we understand is spirituality, and then for children, how can that play out, or how does that appear in the environment? And play offers opportunities for children to engage and experience spiritual moments. And we define spiritual moments as feelings of wonder, of moments of awe, of joy, and inner peace. And play, or through play, children can ask and explore big idea questions, these unanswerable questions that they pose. And they can role-play different scenarios, they can provide meaning to these questions and engage in those spiritual moments, and then just explore life as a whole through play and experience it. So play can support children in their meaning-making and help them find their purpose and carry it forward, which to me is the essence of spirituality.

Jennifer, thank you so much for sharing this with us and giving us so much to think about with those different dynamics at play. We really appreciate you joining us today.

Thank you so much. My pleasure.




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