Family Works

Play is child’s work

Rob Coombs ID. Min. Ph.D.
Posted 8/13/17

Not so long ago, children did not play. During the Middle Ages, children had virtually no childhood. Playgrounds, toys and nurseries were unknown.

After a few short years of dependency, children …

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Family Works

Play is child’s work


Not so long ago, children did not play. During the Middle Ages, children had virtually no childhood. Playgrounds, toys and nurseries were unknown.

After a few short years of dependency, children entered the world of adults and, if they played, played adult games. Nursery rhymes, puzzles and board games were unknown 400 years ago. The first books written in a language children could understand did not appear until the 1800s. Even in the 1700s, life for most children involved heavy labor and exhausting shifts of 12 to 14 hours. There certainly was no time for play.

In colonial America, puritanical parents were suspicious of play and often discouraged anything that prompted laughter and enjoyment. The only play “allowed” was play that encouraged young girls to learn future responsibilities of cleaning and cooking, and boys to learn how to hunt and fish. Playing sports was permissible, as this promoted better physical health. Although dolls for girls and marbles for boys were rare possessions of some children, most children had to find contentment in playing adult games.

Not allowing a child to play is so sad. In addition to being fun, play for children is also a critical part of their development. Play, fueled by imagination and fantasy, is an extremely important avenue of self-expression. Through play, children begin to experiment with different behaviors and feelings in safe and enjoyable surroundings.

Play presents opportunities for children to “try out” the roles of adults, “act out” feelings of frustration and anxiety through make believe, “think out” possible solutions to problems, and “test out” their own strength, ability and daring.

In the process of “trying out,” “acting out,” “thinking out” and “testing out,” children gain a growing sense of control and mastery of their own lives. This growing sense of control and mastery of their own lives takes place through five types of play.

1. Sensorimotor play — Almost immediately after birth, children begin manipulating objects and performing elementary motor skills as a way of gaining an understanding of the world around them. By tasting, touching and looking, children learn not only about many new objects in their world, but also a lot about themselves. As early as 3 months old, infants can grasp and examine objects. It isn’t long until this ability translates into play as they begin to bang and throw whatever they can manage to reach. After children learn to crawl, walk and run, they are free to play with a number of things that once were off limits. Whatever they can touch becomes a potential toy.

2. Imaginative play — Between the ages of 2 and 6 years old, children learn to pretend. Children take on the roles of important people in their world, adopting their speech, gestures and activities. They can even develop plots that include real or imagined experiences. Play takes on an increasingly important role in their lives and consumes much of their time and attention. Whether purely for fun or as a means to release increasing anxieties from their surrounding world, play provides an important outlet.

3. Social play — Between the ages of 4 and 6, children are able to incorporate all the elements of imaginative play into a world of interaction with other children. Rather than playing alone, children now want other children to assist them as they attempt to reproduce the world as they see it. Through interactive play, children practice their language skills, express their emotions and learn the need for compromise and sensitivity.

4. Fantasy play — The role of fantasy in play is increasingly important from ages 2 through 12. Not only is fantasy a pleasurable activity of childhood, but it also allows children to retreat from reality long enough to process new experiences and solve perplexing problems.

5. Game play — As children grow and develop, they move from unstructured play to more structured play. By grade school (ages 6-12) children are playing and enjoying organized games with rules. Rules are viewed as very important and may be the source of intense playground arguments. Structured games are important to the child’s physical, intellectual, and social development, because they involve the interaction of several players.

These days, I’m glad our children can grow up in a world of play. Child’s play is more than just fun and games — play is child’s work.


Rob Coombs is a professor with a doctor of ministry degree and a doctor of philosophy with an emphasis in Family Systems.


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