Giving their children a head start is something parents want to do. Unfortunately, the way this is done in our hyper-competitive, over structured world may in fact be working against exactly these intentions. More and more research is showing that the most critical activity for the development of little children’s brains and their social and cognitive skills, before they go to school, is good old-fashioned play. Far less is gained when little children have full schedules of structured activities, from basic maths classes to early reading, gymnastics, kiddy music and mini-soccer.
“When it comes to brain development, time spent in the classroom and at other structured activities is less important than time on the playground,” says Barbara Eaton, Academic Development Advisor for the Pre-Primary Schools Division at ADvTECH, Africa’s largest private education provider.
She says that research by Sergio Pellis, from the University of Lethbridge in Canada, showed that the experience of play changed the connections of the neurons in the pre-frontal section of a child’s brain, and that without play experience, those neurons remained unchanged.
“Pellis found that it was those changes in the prefrontal cortex during childhood that helped wire up the brain’s executive control centre, which has a critical role in regulating emotions, making plans and solving problems. In other words, play prepares a young brain for life, love and even schoolwork,” Eaton says.
But she warns parents whose children’s rooms look like toyshops that they need to get things back to basics, because the kind of play that is beneficial is primarily the kind of play that requires creativity, imagination and problem-solving.
“In the pre-school phase children need basic toys, not those with roles defined by the media, as the latter limits imagination and the opportunities to plan and create. Provide the child with a good set of plain wooden bricks, a few non-battery-operated cars, a soft doll or two, a teddy, some plastic plates and cups and a big ball.
“Old blankets or sheets for making houses and tents, and some boxes and crates will provide the basics for endless creative and imaginative play. Playdough, some crayons and big sheets of paper – not colouring books – as well as some paint will amply provide for creativity,” says Eaton.
She says that parents need to appreciate that in allowing their children plenty of opportunities to play, with others and alone, they are laying the foundations for academic success.
“Young children work hard at play, and it is not for nothing that play is considered a child’s work. They invent scenes and stories, solve problems and negotiate their way through social roadblocks. They know what they want to do and they work and plan to do it.
“We as adults must not be too quick to interfere in this process, but allow them to work things out for themselves.”
Parents who want to ensure their children are exposed to the right kind of free play (which ironically is also the least expensive kind) should ensure that they provide, from an early age, access to materials that will stimulate their sensory systems. These include water, sand, things that make a noise, books with pictures they can relate to and toys of different textures.
“The contents of your saucepan and plastics cupboard will give hours of creative play while teaching concepts of matching, size, shape, texture and sound. Things that bounce, roll and change shape when pressed or pulled help develop spatial skills and visual acuity,” says Eaton.
“Children must be free to move around once they are mobile, obviously with safety in mind, but do not fear the odd mouthful of grass or your child being dirty. Allow them to dig in the garden, pick flowers and when they are older, make mud cakes and grass ‘soup’ for their fantasy games.”
The Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky found that children are able to rise above their average behaviour through play, notes Eaton.
“It is through fantasy play that children make sense of their world. They must pretend and take on roles in order to understand. The more time children spend in dramatic play, the more they advance in terms of intellectual development and their ability to concentrate.
“As a parent, it is best to curb the growing fashionable trend of extra murals for little children and allow uninterrupted time and space for fantasy play. Choose a pre-school that believes passionately in play based learning. This allows children to work through emotions such as anger, fear and jealousy, to become more self-disciplined, and to develop resilience. All these skills are essential to the development of individuals who can in future master academic challenges and live comfortably in their society.”