The Power of Play
Published on: October 25, 2015
Every child loves the opportunity to play. As adults, we often do not think about the importance of it. Susan delves into the world of play and shows us how essential it is to a child’s development.
By Susan Whalley
No matter the culture, language, or background, children and play go hand in hand. Interestingly, recent research shows that play is diminishing from our children’s childhood.
Parents seem to feel increasing pressure to commit to their children’s development by filling their days with structured classes — be it swimming lessons, ballet, or early phonics — all at a very early age. In Bangkok, particularly, the options seem endless.
Recognizing the value of free play
Free play or child-led play is often overlooked as our babies grow into toddlers despite research that highlight the importance of play in the formative years.
As parents, most of us would agree that we want our children to become confident, considerate, independent and, most importantly, happy. Using play as a vehicle, we can work on these skills from the moment they are born.
While acknowledging that children have an innate curiosity and a deep desire to learn, we need to allow them the freedom to explore their world.
By focusing on the process of learning, we are encouraging our children to have resilience and become critical and creative thinkers.
For a baby, time on the playmat with a parent talking to her about what she is doing while having toys just out of her reach and letting her work things out for herself, helps her physical, emotional and language development.
As a child grows, we have to provide her a level of independence to build on her new skills.
Help is not always helpful
It is also important to recognize that help is not always helpful. In fact, it can yield the opposite of what we may want if the child becomes overly reliant on an adult for skills that she can achieve herself.
Interesting research reveals how adult instruction can actually stifle a child’s desire to explore and discover. Dr. Laura Schulz, associate professor of cognitive science at MIT, tested this idea in an experiment with two groups of four-year-olds. The same toy was given to both groups.
Play allows children to make mistakes and learn from these mistakes.
The first group was taught only two things that the toy could do, whilst the second group was left to explore the properties of the toy on its own.
When given the time to play, the researcher saw children in the first group using the toy only in the way they were shown. However, in the second group, the children experimented and discovered all the features of the toy by themselves.
The researcher also noticed that the second group’s enjoyment level was much higher, while the first group gave up playing with the toy very quickly.
Child-led play gives children the freedom to not only make discoveries but also learn about their interests. Play allows children to make mistakes and learn from these mistakes. Hence, by focusing on the process of learning, we are encouraging our children to have resilience and become critical and creative thinkers.
Social and emotional development through play
Play also has a powerful impact on children’s social and emotional development. Being a part of a group and sharing space and toys require complex social skills.
…children need to experience conflict, understand how it feels, and practice skills in resolving a problem
Children aren’t born with these skills; they need help to develop them and time to practice. The more a child practices — when to speak up, what words to use, how to find the courage to assert themselves — the more naturally they will be able to navigate the complex web of social relationships as they grow older.
It is important to give children time to lead their own playing within a group of friends. It is a perfect time to be close by offering specific praise for what they are doing well and role modeling if you are invited to play. You can also “scaffold” their skills by helping them to understand what is developmentally out of their reach.
Practicing how to handle conflict
Furthermore, children need to experience conflict, understand how it feels, and practice skills in resolving a problem. If not, every time conflict arises, a child will instantly look for an adult’s help and learn to rely on this support instead of developing important life skills for herself.
Play seems simple, but it is really quite the opposite. Here, we have merely scratched the surface of the reasons why play is so powerful. One should never simply state, “Oh, but they are only playing!”
The complex web of skills that are interwoven with child-led (and adult-supported) play is the way young children learn best. Parents and early years educators should use play to enhance a child’s development.
Most importantly, play helps ensure that our children are confident, considerate, independent, successful and happy throughout their developmental journey.
About the Author
Susan has been working in international schools in and around Southeast Asia for the last 15 years, before which she taught in her native New Zealand. She is the principal of Annabel’s Early Years Kindergarten. Susan believes passionately in the importance of high-quality early years’ education and enjoys the challenges involved in creating a child’s blueprint for their future learning. She has two daughters that keep her busy and she tries to fit in running, cycling, pilates, travel, friends and family around being a working mum.
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