When children play, they are practicing skills in every area of development: thinking, solving problems, talking, moving, sensing, cooperating and making moral judgments. This natural form of learning is very similar to the real world, because instead of learning one thing at a time, children have to learn - and use - several ideas, objects and friends all at once. Playing is also fun - it makes children happy, and leads to easier and more effective learning.
In the early years, children explore or play by doing the same thing over and over again. For example, babies hold, manipulate and suck on blocks. Toddlers make block towers, just to knock them down. This repeated practice helps learning and builds confidence. Children learn what objects are like, and what they can do with them. They are beginning to make sense of their world.
As children grow, they add make-believe to their play. When children pretend, they are showing what they know. For example, when they put a block to their ear and say "Hello," children are showing that an object can be a make-believe telephone, and that a telephone is used for talking to people. When children build a castle or an airport, they have to think about their goal, and figure out how to make the castle or airport. That involves being creative and solving problems.
In pretend play, children are making sense of the world, trying out things they've learned and seen, and thinking about their feelings. They sort out fantasy and reality. You can tell a lot about what your child is feeling and thinking just by watching her play.
Around the time your child begins school, games with rules become part of play. Games encourage children to use strategy, logic and moral judgments to follow the rules. Board games like Snakes 'n' Ladders, card games and team sports are all games with rules that help children learn to take turns, negotiate, problem-solve and get along with others.