Some children need help to play

It is important that adults help facilitate the development of children’s ability to play. A Danish researcher points out three reasons for this.



‘Many believe that play is natural for all children. It isn’t’, says the Danish researcher Merete Sørensen.

‘If one thinks of play as a language, there are some children who cannot speak it.’

Similar to the theatre

She sees a direct correlation between children’s play and the theatre as an art form.

‘When children pretend, they step into different roles, just as professional actors do.

‘Each art form has its own language. The theatre has its own language. Play is no more natural than other languages’, she posits.

‘From this perspective, it is no more natural to play than to draw, make music or stage plays, for example.’

Some cannot grasp imagination

Some participate actively in play. Others fail to understand the abstraction involved in play. They may be better at more concrete activities, like playing ball. Venturing into the world of imagination can present a formidable challenge.

‘Play is no more natural than other languages’, she ventures to say.

‘Children who struggle with playing, may need help to get started. Adults occupy an important part as initiators’, Sørensen finds.

‘Those who are not part of group play often find it hard to join in on their own initiative if the play is entirely unstructured. Accordingly, it is important that adults initiate group activities. The activities must be intended for all the children, that is, they should not be initiated solely for those who are left out.’

When children play and pretend, they learn abstract thinking. 

Breaking down power hierarchies

In a research project Sørensen has headed at two kindergartens in Denmark, the kindergarten teachers organised drama activities with all the older children over a five-month period. One goal for the teachers when organising play was to ensure that more children were included in the groups. Unstructured play can produce strong power hierarchies. When play-acting, however, the children did not fight to hold onto the same positions.

‘They acted as though they were putting on a play.

‘Some played the part of directors, suggesting plots and assigning different roles. Some were actively engaged in their roles, while others played extras. The interesting aspect was that children could change their status while playing. From being an outsider and an extra, as it were, they could abruptly be assigned a lead role’, the researcher expounds.

Fewer are excluded

‘There are three good reasons for adults to support children’s development through play’, asserts Sørensen.

‘First of all, the one left standing as an outsider is unhappy. The feeling of being excluded can weigh on a child for a long time’.

Important for learning

‘Another good reason to foster children’s play is that play offers a huge potential for learning. In this context, children develop skills and knowledge that they need. This helps them manage better when they start school’, continues the researcher.

‘When children play and pretend, they learn abstract thinking. That is a prerequisite for learning to read and do maths, for example.’

Understanding what it is like to be someone else

‘A third reason why play is important is that it helps a child understand what it is like to be someone else.

‘Learning empathy is key to development. Getting into a part requires that we think thoughts such as: “What is my character afraid of, and what does he like?”, allows a child to look beyond its own feelings. The part a child plays, even if it is an animal, means forging a bond with another being with whom the child can identify.’

One need not be an expert

When Merete Sørensen evaluated the kindergartens’ projects, she saw that the intensive efforts with drama-related play had strengthened the children’s ability to play. They were better not only at cooperation, but also at improvisation.

She believes that some teachers may be afraid to initiate drama projects in kindergarten. ‘Don’t be’, she smiles.

‘The easiest approach is to start with familiar fairytales and act them out with the children. Examples of well-suited fairytales are “The Three Billy Goats Gruff” or “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”.

‘One need not be an expert on theatre to put on plays’, concludes Sørensen.