If you cast your mind back to your own childhood, you may have memories of cool, sticky mud between your toes, or of a nonsensical game that you played. You may even remember the pain of a fall during a particularly daring adventure. You didn’t know it at the time, but each of these experiences was critical to your development and provided a chance to learn. Now, watching your own young child play, you may be reminded of your own childhood, but still not give much thought to the number of learning opportunities that they are encountering.
Early childhood is a critical time for learning. In fact, the speed at which a young child learns is faster than at any other period in their lives. Research tells us that a stimulating, loving, and playful environment provides the best opportunity for learning. Playing promotes brain development, and neuroscientists have confirmed that environmental enrichment and play are likely to improve academic outcomes in later years.
During the pre-school years, our children develop emotional, social, language, and cognitive skills. Providing opportunities for play enables children to explore and make sense of the world around them and to develop their creative skills and imagination.
Play is such an important part of development that it is found in every culture, and the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child states that every child should have the right to play.
What is play?
Play is something easy to recognize but difficult to define. However, play does have some recognizable attributes:
- Play is meaningful. Through play children can express themselves and expand their understanding.
- Play is joyful. Play is generally a positive and motivating experience.
- Play is engaging. Playing involves concentration and participation.
- Play is interactive. Play encourages communication and shared experience.
- Play is iterative. While playing, children learn more about themselves and their environment.
Categories of play
Play can be divided into 2 main categories.
The 1st is structured play. Structured play usually involves following instructions or rules to reach a certain goal. Examples of structured play include organized sports, board games, or building blocks by following directions to assemble a specific item.
The 2nd kind of play is known as unstructured or free play in which no rules or guidelines exist (except perhaps safety rules) and allow for no set goal and unlimited possibilities. Free play is child-led, enjoyable, and spontaneous. During unstructured play, there is no ultimate objective and the benefit is simply in the play itself. Playing dress-up, inventing games, running around outside, art activities that do not have a set outcome, and building with blocks.
Why is play important?
From an early age, our kids experience a competitive and rapidly advancing technological world. Days are packed with scheduled and structured activities from early childhood as we strive to secure the best possible future outcomes. Play, especially free play, almost seems to be an outdated concept and we may even ask ourselves, “Why is play important?”
In our fast-paced modern society, children are exposed to stress and pressure from an early age and balance is essential for both physical and emotional well-being. Psychologists in New Zealand found that children who have more chances to pretend play and play act with their caregiver are better at regulating their emotions. Emotional regulation is vital as children move into a formal schooling environment and it is equally important for their socializing. Children who are able to control their emotions are usually viewed as more likable and are easily able to socialize with a wide variety of their peers.
Play promotes the drive to learn, allows the opportunity to imagine alternatives, and allows children to connect with their environment. Outdoor play leads to both better physical and mental well-being, improves gross and fine motor coordination, and enhances the immune system. More than this, play supports healthy brain and body development and provides children with the chance to develop mindsets that allow them to create opportunities for themselves and their communities in the future.
Six important skills children develop through play
While play may almost seem irrelevant to the skills our kids will need to develop in order to succeed in adulthood, playing actually provides ideal opportunities to develop competencies that will have lifelong benefits:
- Collaboration: Working together towards a common goal, listening to others, giving and following instructions, and making joint decisions are all critical school and workplace skills learned through collaborative play.
- Critical thinking: Unstructured play opportunities give children the chance to ask questions, consider outcomes, and analyze information. In this manner, play is the foundation for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) and can lead to a love of lifelong learning.
- Communication: While playing without explicit instruction from teachers or parents about what to do, children have the autonomy of assigning roles, making rules, taking turns, sharing, learning to compromise, expressing their views and needs, and listening to others. Being an effective communicator is considered a leadership quality and helps build self-confidence and promote a positive working environment.
- Content Knowledge: Play provides opportunities for our kids to explore the knowledge that they have more deeply. They can engage, make observations, and learn more about themselves and their interests. As children play, they have the chance to master what they have learned and expand their knowledge in a real-world context.
- Creative Innovation: As kids get older, they learn how to play in a more abstract or symbolic way (a broomstick can become a horse, or an acorn cap may become a teacup). Having opportunities for imaginative and out-the-box thinking is the precursor to creative innovation. Not only is creative innovation vital for the arts, but also for the sciences.
- Confidence: Play affords children the opportunity to experiment, try new things, make mistakes, and try again. While playing, children learn to take calculated risks. These are the skills that are often praised when speaking about entrepreneurs.
As explained by Professor Doris Fromberg, Director of Early Childhood Teacher Education at Hofstra University:
Young children learn in quite different ways [than adults]. They learn by comparing physical experiences, by interactions with other people, and their own feelings. And they learn an enormous amount through their imagination…Play is what pulls together the logical and creative parts of the brain.
Play is the work of the child
Psychologist and researcher Jean Piaget said that “play is the work of childhood.” This sentiment was mirrored by the educator Maria Montessori. Piaget identified the development of play in children from a solitary pursuit (from birth to 2 years), to parallel play (2 years+) and finally co-operative play (from 4 years onwards). It is as they progress through these stages of play that children develop gross and fine motor skills, language, personal awareness, problem-solving, creativity, emotional well-being, and socialization skills. Play is the vehicle by which our children acquire knowledge and skills.
We often think of work as a chore, something to be endured rather than enjoyed. For our kids though, even the most ordinary of tasks when carried out in a playful manner can provide opportunities to learn and to reinforce skills through repetition. As children play, they are active, making choices, and practicing actions to a point of mastery.
While play may be the “work of the child,” it is definitely not a serious business, and playing provides children with much pleasure.
How do children learn through play?
Play is important from birth. Babies learn as they experience and observe their world and rely on all their senses to do so. Making sure that they have a stimulating environment by using rich colors, varied textures, and exposure to many sights and sounds all contributes to this learning.
As babies develop, play such as rolling, crawling, and climbing help babies to develop a sense of body awareness (where their body is located in their surroundings, and how it all works together). Using a toy to engage your baby’s attention to improve eye coordination, singing, encouraging rolling, and dancing with your baby in your arms are all playful activities.
As babies become toddlers, toys and props are the tools our kids use to accomplish the “work” of play. Even the simplest of toys and props give kids the chance to figure out how things work, use their imagination, solve problems, learn about cooperation, get new ideas, and develop fine and gross motor skills and muscle control.
As children play, they get a sense of their own abilities. Because play is fun children will become absorbed in what they are doing. Being able to focus on a specific task or game develops a child’s ability to concentrate. Using their imagination while playing a game is the beginning of thinking novel thoughts and creating new and different things. Children use all their senses while playing and, in this way, they engage their full brain in the play process.
Dramatic (or role playing) play is essential for emotional and social development. Children are able to make sense of their world in this way and can work through what they have observed or experienced. This kind of play can also let a child step into someone else’s shoes and in doing so become more understanding and empathetic.
Using open-ended play materials such as Play-doh, paint, felt, paper towel rolls, cardboard boxes, and building blocks let children create whatever they can imagine from the item. This supports creativity and innovative thinking.
With the speed of technological advancement and the growth of media and games specifically directed at young children, the amount of time spent in free play is on the decline. Electronic entertainment such as TV and videos provide a passive experience and video games and apps usually dictate the play experience. While many of us cannot deny that our kids need some access to technology, this needs to be carefully balanced with the work of play.
How can I support learning through play at home?
If left to their own devices, children naturally engage in activities that hold their interest and will learn as they play. There are a number of things that you can do to support learning through play at home.
- Expect mess. Free play can be a messy business. Provide an environment that allows for free play that is sensory and possibly messy. Remember that learning to tidy up after play also presents a chance to learn.
- Encourage new experiences. Whether at home or out and about, encourage your child to try new things.
- Ask questions. Engage in conversations that are meaningful. Ask your child about what interests them and pose questions that allow for imaginative thinking such as “I wonder how…?” or “I wonder what happens when…?”
- Provide opportunities for both indoor and outdoor free play. Implement screen and device free time every day.
- Read to/with your child every day.
- Encourage full immersion in play. Children should be allowed to focus on the activity they are doing without outside distraction.
- Keep a variety of appropriate play materials. There are many easily accessible and inexpensive items that can be used for free play and creative activities. As children develop the cognitive skills required for abstract play various recyclable household items such as egg boxes, toilet rolls, and plastic containers can be repurposed as items for play.
- Play with your child. “Pretend play,” storytelling, and teaching traditional games all provide learning opportunities and ensure that your child’s learning is culturally grounded.
- Arrange play dates. For children of all ages, the chance to interact to play alongside or with their peers provides not only learning opportunities, but also a sense of belonging.
- Give your children the opportunity to make mistakes and self-correct. Allowing children to practice while they play will lead to them become competent at the skills they are learning.
- Pay attention. When playing with your child or observing them in play, be fully present. This not only strengthens the parent-child bond, but gives you as a parent the chance to fully engage with your children from their unique and wonderful perspective.
As parents, we are our children’s first teachers and are the biggest supporters of their learning. When we provide our kids with as many opportunities to play as possible, we develop their interests and build their motivation to learn. Play is one way in which resilience, perseverance, and confidence are built. Through play, our children become active participants in their own learning experiences and lay the foundation for a future of wonderful possibilities.