Before They Even Go To School, Kids Learn a Lot of Skills from the World of Play
For children, play is naturally enjoyable. And since it is their active engagement in things that interest them, play should be child-led, or at least child-inspired, for it to remain relevant and meaningful to them. Children at play are happily lost in themselves; they are in their own realm of wonder, exploration, and adventure, pulling parents in at times with a frequent “Let’s play, mom!” as an open invitation into that world.
As early as infancy, children immerse themselves in play activities with the purpose of making sense of the world around them. Play gives children the opportunity to learn and experience things themselves, which is vital for their development. Although peek-a-boo games seem pointless to adults, tots are awed by the surprise that awaits them as they see the suddenly emerging faces of people they love.
Stages of Play
During toddlerhood, children experience a motor-growth spurt that equips them to solitarily fiddle with anything they can get their hands on – be it a construction toy or the box from where it came. Toddlers also love breaking into song, wiggling and jiggling to tunes, and imitating finger plays they are commonly exposed to.
Preschoolers begin extending their play to involve others, whether they bring others in at any stage of their game or they plan their game and its players’ way ahead. Their physical and motor skills allow them to widen their lay arena, from dramatic play to table games to outdoor pursuits.
School-age children start appreciating organized play – such as innovated songs and rhymes, games with rules, relays and other physical activities, sports and projects that they can accomplish over a certain time frame.
Why the big fuss about playing? Play benefits the child in ways that might be a tad difficult for adults to imagine.
1. Play brings pure and utter joy.
A toddler who jumps into an empty box and runs around the house ‘driving a car’ shows the sheer happiness that play brings him or her. When children are asked what they did in school and they answer ‘play,’ it is a clear sign that these kids remember a feeling of genuine joy that is captured in this four-letter word.
2. Play fosters socio-emotional learning.
What does a ten-month-old baby who shrieks at the sight of her stuffed toy have in common with a ten-year-old boy who plays basketball with his friends? They both deal with their confidence as they choose to embark on their play activities. At the same time, they are displaying their independence in the decisions that they make. These two children are also internalizing social rules in their respective play situations: the baby waits patiently for her stuffed toy to appear, while the school-age child has to contend with an impending loss in a ball game.
3. Play hones physical and motor development.
Play often involves the use of the senses, the body, and the extremities. When children play, they exercise their bodies for physical strength, fluidity of movement, balance and coordination.
Perceptual-motor ability, or the capacity to coordinate what you perceive with how you move, is an essential skill that preschoolers need to develop. A three-year-old who is engrossed in digging, scooping, and pouring sand into a container must match his or her perception of the space in front of him or her with actual hand movements, so that he or she can successfully fulfill the motor activity.
4. Play facilitates cognitive learning.
Play is vital to the intellectual development of a child. We live in a symbolic world in which people need to decode words, actions, and numbers.
For young children, symbols do not naturally mean anything because they are just arbitrary representations of actual objects. The role of play is for the child to understand better cognitive concepts in ways that are enjoyable, real, concrete, and meaningful to them. For instance, through play, a child is able to comprehend that the equation 3 + 2 = 5 means ‘putting together’ his toy cars by lining them up in his makeshift parking lot. When he combines 2 triangles to make a square during block play, or writes down his score is a bowling game, the child is displaying what he knows about shapes and numbers.
Through play, the child is constructing his or her worldview by constantly working and reworking his understanding of concepts.
5. Play enhances language development.
Toddlers who are still grappling with words need to be immersed in oral language so they can imitate what they hear. They benefit from songs and rhymes that provide the basis for understanding how language works.
When these tots are playing with toys, adults model to them how language is used to label objects or describe an event. At play, preschoolers use language to interact, communicate ideas, and likewise learn from dialogues with more mature members of society.
6. Play encourages creativity.
Barney the dinosaur was right about using imagination to make things happen. A lump of Play-Doh suddenly turns into spaghetti with meat sauce and cheese; a small towel transforms into a cape that completes a superhero’s wardrobe; and a tin can serves as a drum that accompanies an aspiring rock artist. Play opens an entire avenue for children to express themselves, show what they know and how they feel, and to create their own masterpieces.
7. Play provides bonding opportunities.
Play is an important factor in child development. It provides for interaction, experimentation, and moral development. Here are some ways by which parents can encourage and support their children’s playtime.
- Let your child be the player-leader. Let children initiate their activity, set their own theme, choose the parameters where the play will take place. Play becomes a venue for children to express their feelings and be in control.
- Help them help themselves. When your 5-year-old asks for help, say, figuring out how to piece a puzzle together, stop yourself from coming to her rescue and first ask your child questions that allow him or her to help himself or herself. Say, “Where do you think this piece should go?” Afterward, commend his or her success.
- Play attention. Once you make a commitment to play with your child, watch for the following signals: Does he or she want you to actively play a part in the activity? Does he or she need encouragement? Is he or she tired or hungry? Does he or she need to take a break?
- Have a play plan. If you seem to have little time for playing with your child, consider using self-care chores to have fun with him or her. Also, get support from other people in your household, like older siblings, household help, or the child’s grandparents, so that they understand why play is important and how they should continue to encourage it.