Is Child’s Play a Dying Art?


As early childhood educators, we all know that “a child’s play is their work.”  Children learn through play.  During that play, they need movement, time to explore, time to be creative.  They don’t need expensive toys or the latest electronic devices. While those things do have a place, we seem to have become a society craving the next “new and shiny” thing, spending a fortune for it, not realising the essential art of play and what children need..

Kids need stimulation and creativity comes from working with familiar objects.  A cardboard box becomes a hat, a seat, a car, a boat, a cubby, a building… the list is endless.  Taking a familiar object and seeing what properties it has and how it can be manipulated is building brain connections in parts of the brain and cognitive thinking that are the building blocks for maths, science, language, social interactions, storytelling, and more.

Every time parents place young children in front of the television or other technical devices, an opportunity for natural exploration and play has been missed.  Every time they are playing games on a computer, a tablet or phone, they are limiting opportunities to build cognitive processes needed for school.

Technology has it’s place and it is necessary for all children to learn how to use it to navigate this world or emerging technology. But we have to be very careful not to replace natural play episodes that are vital for brain, body and emotional health. We have to get the balance right. In homes, many children are being raised by technology, used as babysitters.

In our classrooms, the natural, explorative play experience becomes even more important as for some, it may be the only experiences of those kinds they get.

Creative children spend less time on devices and more time in play.  Sadly, I see too many children these days who have lost (or never developed) the skills associated with play, especially imaginative play. 

So How Do We Nurture Creative Play?

Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Imagination is the door to possibilities. Think of the essential skills a child learns during creative play and then with those in mind, develop experiences that encompass them. They need to have the opportunity to:

During imaginative play, children manipulate materials, express themselves verbally and non-verbally, plan (intentionally or unintentionally), act, interact, react, and try different roles.

  • Manipulate materials
  • Express themselves verbally and non-verbally
  • Intentional and unintentional expression of feelings and thoughts
  • Act
  • Interact
  • React
  • Explore different roles
  • Explore both natural and man made materials
  • Develop critical thinking by imagining and trying different ways of doing things
  • Both open ended and planned scenarios (for example a stucture given to them where they can create their own internal world such as a zoo, shop, house, hospital, space station etc)

Ideas For Creative Play

Verbal Stimulation

Games that include language might include games of “I Spy”, making up new lyrics to a well known tune or playing with silly rhyming words. These can be great outlets to explore creative thinking but also develop new skills with language at the same time

Art Activities

These can be traditional materials such as paint and paper, or why not allow creative thinking to really explode with materials such as dirt and water, shaving cream on glass or tiles, chalk on cement, rocks, sand, shells, egg cartons, stamps, jelly…. anything can be a material that art can be created from.

Group Projects

As well as small interactions with one or two other people why not try some brainstorming with the whole group to create something. Brainstorming will allow for ideas to bounce of each other which can then spark new ideas they may not have had on their own. Creating and building a project together (whatever it is) helps with ownership and responsibility, allowing them to feel part of the process.

There is a term that has been around for awhile which is “creative confidence”. Kids who have a lot of opportunities to explore creative play and develop creative thinking have creative confidence which leads to further creative thinking. It multiplies on and on.

Those children who are starved of play opportunities are not creatively confident. They often will shy away from creative opportunities which leads to less and less creative thinking until they eventually become unable to do it at all.

While we can’t replace home life, we can make sure that we include a very thoughtful plan for creative play that encourages creative thinking and problem solving for the time that they are with us.

Diana Cameron

Diana has over 32 years in the early childhood industry and has been a guest lecturer and workshop facilitator both nationally and internationally for the past 20 years. She has a passion for inspiring educators to use creativity and imagination in their teaching.

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