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Let’s Play! The Role of Playing in Learning

Image source: One Perfect Day

“Play is the highest form of research.” ~ Albert Einstein

The Importance of Imaginative Play

Fantasy play is correlated with other positive attributes. In preschool children, for example, those who have imaginary friends are more creative, have greater social understanding and are better at taking the perspective of others, according to Marjorie Taylor, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon and author of the book “Imaginary Companions and the Children Who Create Them.”

Imaginary friends can also be used to help children cope with stress, Dr. Taylor says. “This is a strength of children, their ability to pretend,” she says. “They can fix the problem with their imagination.” – WSJ

The Benefit of Play on Child Development

Dramatic play enhances child development in four major areas (Early Childhood News):


When children come together in a dramatic play experience, they have to agree on a topic (basically what “show” they will perform), negotiate roles, and cooperate to bring it all together. And by recreating some of the life experiences they actually face, they learn how to cope with any fears and worries that may accompany these experiences. Children who participate in dramatic play experiences are better able to show empathy for others because they have “tried out” being that someone else for a while. They also develop the skills they need to cooperate with their peers, learn to control their impulses, and tend to be less aggressive than children who do not engage in this type of play.


Dramatic play helps children develop both gross and fine motor skills – fire fighters climb and parents dress their babies. And when children put their materials away, they practice eye-hand coordination and visual discrimination.


When children are involved in make-believe play, they make use of pictures they have created in their minds to recreate past experiences, which is a form of abstract thinking. Setting a table for a meal, counting out change as a cashier, dialing a telephone, and setting the clock promote the use of math skills. By adding such things as magazines, road signs, food boxes and cans, paper and pencils to the materials included in the area, we help children develop literacy skills. When children come together in this form of play, they also learn how to share ideas, and solve problems together.


In order to work together in a dramatic play situation, children learn to use language to explain what they are doing. They learn to ask and answer questions and the words they use fit whatever role they are playing. Personal vocabularies grow as they begin to use new words appropriately, and the importance of reading and writing skills in everyday life becomes apparent by their use of literacy materials that fill the area.

Dramatic play engages children in both life and learning. Its’ real value lies in the fact that it increases their understanding of the world they live in, while it works to develop personal skills that will help them meet with success throughout their lives.

Image Credit: Pinterest – Mia Cavalca


“Children learn as they play. Most importantly, in play children learn how to learn.” ~ O. Fred Donaldson


Image Source: Splash Math

Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of (a website on parenting, education, child development) and (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

4 thoughts on “Let’s Play! The Role of Playing in Learning

  1. Hi Dr Lee,

    I’ve been following your blog for some time and have gleaned much from your insights.

    I have 2 boys myself, aged 3 and 5. Today, I had an episode with my 5 year old which I found rather perplexing and hence would like to seek you advice on it

    I’ve begun helping him practice writing Chinese characters recently and his daily homework consists of 2 pages of an A5 squared exercise, so it’s probably like repetitions of 12 times for 3 characters, which I find to be within his capability. Being a typical boy however, he dilly dallies and plays a fool and the work can be left partially done even after 2 hours. I tried cajoling, bribing, giving treats, threatening and eventually what worked today was I grounded him and didn’t bring him along for his playground time.

    I’m not sure if you also encounter such motivational issues with your boys, my boys’ attention span is so short and he is easily distracted. I certainly don’t wish to be a proverbial tiger mum but at the end of the day, I reckon it’s not so much the learning of Chinese words per se as much as the values and principles that would shape his character. I do feel the need to inculcate in him the perseverance, discipline and grit to do the hard things first, even if he doesn’t like it.

    May I pick your brain on what do you think I should work on and where I should go from here?

    Thanks in advance!


    1. I understand completely where you are coming from. Your 5 year old sounds exactly like my younger boy and we had the same difficulties with handwriting practice. It has been a long and arduous process but we are getting there slowly. At 5 years old, it’s worth remembering that he is still very young. He also sounds like the sort of boy who is very active and will find it difficult to sit still to practice writing. You will have to be patient and perhaps sit with him while he works to make sure he stays focused until he can learn to do it independently.

      Every child is individual and what motivates one may not work for another. If the removal of privileges works for you, then perhaps you should continue with it and reward him when the work is done – even if the process was painstaking. The idea is to link completion of his work with some form of positive reinforcement.

      You could also try to turn his work into a game – for instance, can you finish writing this page before the timer runs out? It’s a pity it’s homework that has to be done on paper because some children can be motivated to do better if you give them different media to write on – like a chalk board/white board.

      Also, active boys need time to run around to get rid of the excess energy. What if you try setting his homework time after he’s had a chance to run around for a bit? You could also break it up into smaller chunks – 5 minutes writing, break for 5 minutes, 5 minutes writing, break for 5 minutes, and so on until the work is done.

      Handwriting is very tiring for a 5 year old and some children can’t do it for very long because their hands get tired. They need time to build up the fine muscles in their fingers. This is another reason why whiteboard writing is recommended because it requires less strength to write with a marker on a whiteboard than with a pencil on paper. Other things that help are the thicker pencils because it helps with their dexterity.

      You can incorporate activities that will build up his finger strength, like play doh. Allowing him to play at the playground is also great for muscle development in the hands and arms (which support handwriting).

      Hope these suggestions help.


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