sports and recreational activities. They also
stimulate social and cognitive development.
The games that we play with children have
the general features of all true play, that is, they are
spontaneous, enjoyable, and satisfy inner needs.
The difference is that games have explicit rules. Up
until age seven, children tend to make up the rules
as they go along. At age seven as they experience a
cognitive growth spurt, children become very aware
of rules as any teacher on yard duty knows. Grade two
students are constantly agitated because someone
isn’t playing right.
Play is bound by implicit rules understood by the
players. Play is not a free-for-all. It is highly active
but never chaotic. Adults don’t always see the rules
but children themselves clearly understand them. In
pretend play, for example, such things as staying in
character, performing situation appropriate actions,
and using language to further the actions make play
a safe and productive activity.
Games with rules, particularly sports, are generally
governed by external rules. For this reason, some
play advocates suggest that sports are not true play.
Playing sports, however, has proven to be an effective
way of teaching valuable interpersonal skills such as
co-operation, teamwork, and tolerance. The Right
to Play organization, operating around the world,
is dedicated to promoting education through play
and sports. It has as its motto, “Take care of yourself.
Take care of others.” There can be many opportunities
to participate in self-directed play through sports.
If the expectations for sport games respect age-
appropriate behavior and the goal is not necessarily
who wins or loses, sports can be an enjoyable part of
a child’s play world.
When children take the soccer balls outside, different
games emerge. Two children set up a target on the
wall and practice kicking the ball at the target. They
decide what counts as ‘hitting the target’, and how
many points are awarded for each target. Others
begin to organize a soccer game, deciding on the
goal line, what will serve as goal posts, and who will
be the goalie. One child takes over and chooses the
teams and some express the feeling that the selection
process is not ‘fair’. The game begins, and after a while
one of the goalies declares she wants to switch roles.
Another child takes her place. There are arguments
about a non-goal, but these quickly fade as the desire
to keep playing is more compelling.
Each of these forms of play has something unique
to offer. In an article featured in the New York Times
(2008), Robin Henig examines why children play.
She challenges the romanticized view of play and
childhood as “too squishy” and searches the literature
on animal play to find the essential purpose that
play has in primate development. She concludes:
“Animal findings about how play influences brain
growth suggest that playing, though it might look
silly and purposeless, warrants a place in every child’s
day … a place that embraces all styles of play and
that recognizes that play is every bit as essential to
healthful neurological development as test-taking,
Spanish lessons, or Suzuki violin.” As adults we
may not understand the value of play, but we can
appreciate and respect the place it has in the lives of