I have been learning all about play, and I wanted to share with you some of the reasons why it is so important to the healthy all round development of children. First of all it is worth saying that there are so many different types of play, too many to mention here, and lots of ideas surrounding exactly it means to play. It is difficult to define play because it is context dependent, ever changing and personal to the player. Play is not the same as being playful. True play is always chosen and controlled by the child and is characterised by a deep concentration. This is important because adult led activities are not the same as free flow play!
Every child in the world is born with an innate desire to play. I have already written about the benefits of treasure baskets for babies, and of course babies also benefit from interaction with their caregivers. That is the first way the learn how to be sociable! Poppy enjoys playing on her own too, and no one has taught her that, it comes naturally, just like sleeping and eating. As babies get older they are interested in finding things out for themselves, and ‘heuristic play’, a step up from treasure baskets, is beneficial at this stage. Children make their own discoveries spontaneously and there is no right or wrong way, giving them the confidence to make decisions and learn. Heuristic play enhances physical and cognitive development as children use fine and gross motor skills to manipulate and explore. If play is always adult led however a child’s natural motivation to play will be crushed and they will not be able to think for themselves.
Early physical play builds strength, coordination and skill and also offers a break from cognitive tasks, with school break times improving children’s attention during lessons. Rough and tumble play is a safe way for children to develop emotional control as they fight with friends and self-handicap. This is a normal part of development and can help children to manage their emotions and maintain friendships. Physical development is at the centre of a child’s overall development and so all of that seemingly silly activity you see in the playground is of great importance to every element of the child’s growth!
During this time children actively interact with each other, learning social-emotional skills that give them confidence and build their self-esteem, which will encourage positive relationships throughout their entire lives. The conversations they have during play, with each other and adults, not only help children expand their vocabulary and understanding of language, but are also thought provoking and encourage children to work together to solve problems. Playing with people of different ages increases the child’s scope to develop as they help each other learn, which is actually one reason that I find the typical classroom set up so unnatural. It is not realistic of true life, to have children of all the same age working together. By home educating Poppy I hope she will have friends of all different ages, expanding her learning potential and opening up a social world that school perhaps cannot offer. Anyway…back to play! We all remember playground games – I loved polo polo and stuck in the mud, but there are hundreds and children make up their own games with rules too. These games introduce morals to a child and increase social awareness. Social concepts are formed as children take turns, share and listen to each other. They face disagreements, and learn how to effectively deal with them, and start to learn about consequences (if they do break the rules!) They start to manage their own behaviour and feel that they have their own place in society, or at least in their own small society, but this is just the start of their sense of identity in the bigger world. Social lessons are much better learnt through experience than explanation, and disagreements, falling outs and preferences over friends is completely natural and true to real life. An adult who tries to keep the peace by forcing children to get along at all times is addressing the problem very artificially and temporarily, with the children learning little negotiation or communication skills in the process, and often being left confused.
Credits Image: Maciej Lewandowski (CC)
A well-recognised type of play is fantasy play, something I am sure you can all remember. You probably acted out your own experiences, and copied things that you had seen your parents or older siblings do. The whole time you would have been making new links between your knowledge, gathering information, putting everything together in your mind so that it could become embedded and understood, without overwhelming you. There is so much for a child to take in, playing is the best possible way for them to consolidate their learning and deal with that amount of information, which they simply couldn’t process any other way.
Children rehearse the future during fantasy play, and in doing so they function in advance of themselves, reaching the very top of their skill set and extending it further. They prepare for the challenges of life, and this practise run makes them more confident and able to deal with real situations as adults. Their role-play allows them to see life from new perspectives and learn about human interactions. Communication and listening skills, cooperation, empathy and understanding – these are skills that you could easily see on a CV or college application aren’t they? Life long skills that open up opportunities and contribute to a person’s social life and therefore their happiness! What if a child doesn’t have the chance to practise them whilst they are young? Do they just appear from nowhere? No, they are skills just like any other and they need to be refined.
So now imagine two children playing families. One child is the Mummy and the other the Daddy, and they are pretending that their dolls are their children. They care for the dolls like they have seen adults doing, they talk to each other in a grown up way, they have an argument about whose turn it is to go to the shop, they decide to go together and when they are there they recite things they need to make a cake and use wooden blocks and beanbags as eggs and flour. A typical childhood scene, that may be seen as simple fun, and yet those two children are learning more than ever and enhancing every single area of development. How? Acting as mummy and daddy teaches them about relationships and the imagination involved in becoming someone else promotes creativity and flexibility of thought which is vital for learning. As they care for the dolls they begin to gain a sense of responsibility and care, unlocking new emotions and an empathy and understanding towards others. The argument they act out may be something they have overheard themselves, and by re-enacting it they begin to understand the complicated emotions involved in human relationships and that they are normal. They see different points of view and learn how to manage their own emotions and understand other peoples. Perhaps the argument reflects a difficult time in their home life, and through role-play they are working through their own difficult emotions and easing their pain. They solve a problem together by deciding to go to the shop together. They are learning to work cooperatively, as well as trying out new ideas, adapting their thoughts and thinking outside of the box. As they shop for the cake ingredients they use their current knowledge of baking and it becomes embedded in their minds, and they show their creativity in using different items to represent to food. This ability to symbolise is the first step in developing abstract thought. Perhaps they build on their knowledge further as one child suggests that the cake could be made with brown sugar instead of white and the other suggests it is a lemon cake and so they choose a yellow box to represent the cake. They may even be exploring a scene from a favourite book about baking a birthday cake, helping them relate to the language within that book so that it is more meaningful to them and the next time they read it they notice new things that they hadn’t before. The whole time they are talking and listening and using their bodies. The children are also in deep concentration, completely engrossed in their play. This concentration is vital for a child’s development; it is the single most important factor in learning.
Credits Image: Lars Plougmann (CC)
As well as learning about the world, children do a great deal of learning about themselves during play. They may use play to deal with traumatic experiences and feel in control of worrying situations. Play helps children become emotionally literate, increasing their resilience to mental health problems, which in this day and age is definitely worth noting. The processing of emotions during solitary play impacts other areas of development. It is often a very deep play where children are free to gather ideas, dwell on feelings, relationships and embodiment, all of which are at the heart of creativity. Art, literature and music may be created as a way of dealing with emotions that the child has come to understand during their play. I remember playing on my own at home a lot as a child (probably because my sister thought she was too cool for me!) and I was, and still am, a rather creative person. In fact I specifically remember writing poems when I was feeling angry, sad or confused, or creating art when I was happy or finding or changing my own identity. As a child play may be the healthiest and most natural way to deal with the plethora of inevitable emotions you are faced with.
During the first five years of life children learn more rapidly than any other time and opportunities to play contribute hugely to healthy holistic development. Of course well-rounded, healthy children, who grow up into stable, intelligent adults, have positive outcomes for the whole of society. Even adults benefit from play! In a technological world where I see toddlers playing games on their parents phones, preschool children being bought computers for Christmas, and TV’s being used as babysitters, I wonder if the next generation are being given enough encouragement to play? Children are not communicating with each other, they are not moving, they are not thinking for themselves, they are not exploring their word. Play is the most natural and effective method of learning; if we deprive our children of play, we deprive them of a wealth of developmental benefits that can never be replicated with technology.
So why not try a screen free week, get out there and play!
Credits Image: David Robert Bliwas (CC)