Parents often are led to believe that fancy toys based on technology or expensive experiences or trips are necessary to give their children a childhood full of wonder and joy. But consider the common scenario of a young child being more drawn to the box a toy came in, rather than the toy itself. Through this image, we can begin to understand the power of a child’s imagination, which is at the root of self-driven play in the early years. In an environment in which children are supported in their desires to explore and create, wonder and joy will follow. But play isn’t just about creating joy in a child’s life, play is actually vital to a child’s overall development.

Misconceptions of Play

Play can be misunderstood. Many people see play as the opposite of learning- more of a ‘brain break’ than an opportunity to learn. This, however, could not be further from the truth. Play enhances both physical and mental development in the early years. It is easy to understand how play can be beneficial physically, by naturally helping to strengthen both large and fine motor skills. But what about mentally? It is important to understand that children are not mini adults. They do not yet have a fully developed brain; therefore, they do not learn in the same way as adults. Research has shown young children learn far less from direct instruction than from play. Play is like training for the developing brain.

Play is like training for the developing brain. It prepares children by allowing natural opportunities to plan, organize, get along with others and regulate emotions. It improves language, math, and social skills, and even helps children learn how to cope with stress. The American Association of Pediatrics states that “…developmentally appropriate play with parents and peers is a singular opportunity to promote the social-emotional, cognitive, language, and self-regulation skills that build executive function and a prosocial brain. Furthermore, play supports the formation of the safe, stable, and nurturing relationships with all caregivers that children need to thrive. Play is not frivolous: it enhances brain structure and function and promotes executive function (ie, the process of learning, rather than the content), which allow us to pursue goals and ignore distractions.” In short, play naturally promotes all domains of learning and prepares a child’s developing brain for the learning that is to follow.

Hidden Benefits of Play

Play among children involves complex interactions which can strengthen core life skills. Through play, children learn how to take risks, make up their own rules, and stay flexible to the ideas and guiding of those with whom they are playing. They are learning important social cues such as how to adapt to others and when to speak up. They learn how to share, not just physical items, but their ideas and sharing “the stage.” They learn to allow others to express their thoughts and how to add to these thoughts and ideas in a collaborative way. They learn how to negotiate for their role, their part in the playing.

Consider an imaginative world in which children have come upon the agreement that a tree stump is the home of their specific characters and a few rocks are acting as different types of foods. The children quickly come to agree upon this as being their truth but as their story evolves, this initial idea changes just as a dream can suddenly change without much warning. The children begin spontaneously collaborating on new ideas and incorporate other objects into the imaginative play. The stump becomes a store, the surrounding leaves become money, and the rocks are items to sell. Through this type of ever-evolving imaginative play the children learn both to adapt and how to effectively push back on the ideas of others. The value of this experience can’t be underestimated. It is prepping the developing brain on how to be social, and how to be flexible, and how to set boundaries, which are timeless and priceless life skills.

Not only are children internalizing important social cues, but this imaginative interaction also helps them to naturally refine their speech sounds and adopt and practice new language skills. When playing with slightly older children or caretakers, young children begin to pick up on the right way words are put together, new words naturally get added to their vocabulary, and they learn when to pause to listen or let someone else speak. They can also develop early math skills. Consider our store scenario. Children are natural negotiators and may decide together what the rock items are and would cost, or they might count up leaves and try dividing them up equally. Practicing these early estimation and counting and division skills in this way, through play, suits the development of a child’s brain in the early years. And again, the children are also developing gross and fine motor skills as they run to find more rocks, pick up rocks, find a good way to balance them, and carry them back to the stump. When the children begin to feel restless, they will find ways of releasing their energy by running and jumping and chasing all on their own. Perhaps a monster has come into the store and is chasing them around. Whatever the scenario, they naturally find ways of incorporating physicality into their play.

Early Childhood Education

When considering a preschool for your child, it is important to understand that play should be an integral part of the curriculum. As stated, this is how young children learn best. However, it is also important to look for centers that understand the intricacies of how play can be used as the framework for learning. When touring a center, pay attention to the environment and the staff. The environment should be designed to spark curiosity in a child. It should offer a variety of stimulation of learning such as sensorial play, nature-based play, physical play, social play, and imaginative play. Well-trained teachers know how and when to probe children to gain insight from their play. By asking the right questions they can get children to dig deeper by actively and creatively thinking. Try to gain an awareness of how the teachers are interacting with the children.

Finding the Right Balance

It’s also important to note that when away from their primary caretakers, some structure and routine during the day is a comfort to young children. When executed in a warm and playful way this can alleviate a child’s worry as to what to expect each day. With the increasing expectations of children who enter kindergarten, there are also specific skills that are necessary to learn in order to aid children for a smooth transition into their next level of schooling. Inquire if the curriculum is designed with activities that are to elicit these learning objectives. Ideally these should be hands-on activities which incorporate play to naturally engross the children in the learning.

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