The Power of Purposeful Play

The science behind play

by Patti Chapman/ November 19, 2015

The below post is a portion of a research paper Patti Chapman did as part of her course work in her doctoral program.

Children learn best through play. Play has been heralded by educators and psychologists for centuries as the “ideal activity for the development of young children” (Cheng, 2012). Through play, as they mature, “children develop their capacities in creativity, problem-solving, logic, social knowledge, communication, self-regulation, cognitive processing and social development” (Henderson & Atencio, 2007). Piaget (1951) viewed play as a way for children to acquire new skills through the process of learning.

"Play is cognitively challenging. It requires attention, and so it sharpens our senses. It both demands and inspires mental dexterity and flexibility. Play makes us nimble, capable of adapting to a rapidly evolving world. It thrives on complexity, uncertainty, and possibility, which makes play just about the perfect preparation for life in the twenty-first century". (Chmelynski, 2006) Children’s cognitive learning comes through physical, social, and interactive experiences hence play is the most influential cognitive phenomena that includes all three of these experiences; there is no other experience that exists that is as important to a child’s development (Henderson and Atencio, 2007).

Learning is actually part of the evolutionary design of children. However, we still seem to believe learning is equated to a teacher imparting knowledge when in fact learning happens through exploration and interaction. (Cook, 2006). It is important to note that the simple presence of children, the presence or availability of toys, curricula used in the classroom or even the physical situation does not constitute the context of play. Play is actually a combination of all of these combined (Malone, 1999). Play places children in an arena that is safe for them to try various skills, roles, experiences, thoughts, and behaviors not at their own normal cognitive level but usually at a level above their own normal level (Pellegrini and Boyd, 1993).

If we ask more open-ended questions, children will be encouraged to use their imaginations and make new discoveries (Cook, 2006). Thus, curriculum flexibility that captures, sustains and extends play focusing on weaving it with the object of learning in an environment where the teacher is extremely sensitive to the behavior of the child is a must for play based learning (Cheng, 2012). However, teachers sometimes have a difficult time grasping the ambiguous nature of play, which in turn also makes it difficult to implement learning through play effectively (Cheng, 2012).

According to Dewey (1938) the most important concepts are experiences that lead to growth. Environments that contribute to that growth experience in a child are the complete responsibility of the teacher to shape and support (Henderson and Atencio, 2007). Teachers have the ability to create opportunities for children to engage in play experiences that will open new learning about the world and how it works (Honig, 2007). As teachers begin to use play in the classroom they will also find that children of varying background knowledge levels can be easily accommodated because play can be easily differentiated (Leach, 2012). Children have a natural instinct to explore, gain new knowledge and master it; teachers can help by building on that natural desire using play as the vehicle (Vosniadow, 2001). Leach (2012) believes that any curriculum can incorporate simple play.

 “Kids know how to play and enjoy life. They play among them or by themselves, but they know how to do it. Play is like a beautiful gift that they receive when they are born, but sadly is usually lost in their journey to adulthood” (Torres-Crespo, 2014). Teachers of the future will need to grasp the vast knowledge of how children learn best and hold a deep understanding of those principles and practices (Sawyer, 2006).

Do you incorporate play into your learning times with the kids at your church?


Cheng, D. P. (2012). The Relation between Early Childhood Teachers' Conceptualization of "Play" and Their Practice: Implication for the Process of Learning to Teach. Frontiers Of Education In China7(1), 65-84.

Chmelynski, C. (2006). Play Teaches What Testing Can't Touch: Humanity. Education Digest: Essential Readings Condensed For Quick Review72(3), 10-13.

Cook, N. (2006). The Age of Discovery. Instructor115(6), 23-24.

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. New York: Touchstone.

Henderson, T. Z., & Atencio, D. J. (2007). Integration of Play, Learning, and Experience: What Museums Afford Young Visitors. Early Childhood Education Journal35(3), 245-251.

Honig, A. (2007). Play: Ten Power Boosts for Children's Early Learning. Young Children62(5), 72-78.

Leach, J. S. (2012). Methods and Strategies: It's Child's Play. Science And Children49(5), 60-64.

Malone, D. M. (1999). Contextual factors informing play-based program planning. International Journal of Disability, Development, & Education, 46, 307–324.

Pellegrini, A. D., & Boyd, B. (1993). The role of play in early childhood development and education: Issues in definition and function. In B. Spodeck (Ed.), Handbook of research on the education of young children (pp. 105–122). New York: Macmillan Publishing.

Piaget, J. (1951). Play dreams and imitation in childhood. New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Sawyer, R. K. (2006). The school of the future. In R. K. Sawyer, (Ed.), The Cambridge handbook of the learning sciences (pp. 567–580). NY: Cambridge University Press.

Torres-Crespo, M. N., Kraatz, E., & Pallansch, L. (2014). From Fearing STEM to Playing with It: The Natural Integration of STEM into the Preschool Classroom. SRATE Journal23(2), 8-16.

Vosniadou, S., International Bureau of Education, G. (. (Switzerland)., & International Academy of Education, B. (. (Belgium). (2001). How Children Learn. Educational Practices Series--7