How many times have you had "that child" who clings to mom, who fights to hold on to her, and when mom is finally out of his grasp, who cries by the door? You know the one I am talking about. The one who hangs out at your elbow all day, just fighting away the sniffles? No, he doesn't care how nice you are, how friendly, how reassuring. He doesn't want to play. He doesn't want to hear a story. He wants to GO HOME! It is a frustrating thing, sometimes for teachers.
99% of the time, with a little encouragement, with a little adult interaction, the child will eventually find their way over to an area of interest, play, and forget about home. The child will have fun, but what is really happening here? The child is coping. (The 1% that is not included in this is the one child I ever had who didn't play after an entire day, no matter how much I encouraged. The next day started the same way, I asked him "if you could do anything you wanted what would you do?" He answered "go home." "What if you couldn't go home but could do anything else?" "Cry," he answered. I told him, firmly but lovingly, that he could cry if he needed to but we, he and I were going to play. I gave him a list of three things that his mom said he liked to do at home that we could "play together" and said he had to choose one. He chose drawing, and after a bit stopped crying, and never had a day like that afterward. Some children have to be taught how to cope). There are a million important things that play "does" for children, but sometimes the most important is that it enables them to cope, and to cope with something that is (for them) very traumatic. Many of these children have never been with this many children at once, some have never been in the care of someone they haven't know for their entire lives, and the ones that have get to have a "babysitter" in their own home. It is a tough, tough milestone; but they are hardwired to cope by playing.
Other times play- coping takes a different form. Sometimes children use play to make scary things that are upsetting to them okay. For instance the other day a child passing from one side of the room picked up our telephone and screamed into it "OKAY! I ALREADY PAID THE FREAKING BILL!!" Slammed the phone down and moved on to play in the art area. Of course we all know there are far more scary things than this that some children are trying to cope with around the world, but this is a small example.
Of course these are verbal examples of children coping, but just imagine how much they are coping with that is NOT verbalized.
Yes, when children play they learn, grow, develop, and cope. Such a little thing can be so important.