As parents we constantly worry that we are not giving our children the very best educational foundations to prepare them for the adult, working world. We want our children to be a success in this highly competitive, fast-moving world of technology and we will pour our time, effort and money into extra-mural activities and extra-lessons in order to achieve just that.
Sadly, this often comes at the expense of time spent in simple, unstructured play. More and more today, play time is being lost to structured learning activities. This does not simply reduce the freedom and joy of childhood; it removes a cornerstone of development. Yes, play is actually an essential part of child development and therefore of learning!
Let’s look at how play helps your child’s development:
Gross motor skills: It is easy to see how running, jumping, climbing and swimming develop your child’s muscle strength and coordination. What is less obvious is that if your child’s sporting activity becomes too regulated too soon, he is going to specialise before he has developed an overall good coordination. The more diverse a child’s physical play can be, the more chance he has of developing his muscles and overall coordination in a balanced way. He is less likely to develop early tight tendons ( I see many children with tight tendons at the back of the knees) and less likely to develop weak core muscles (we are seeing more and more young children walking around with poor posture due to weak core muscles). So encourage your child to do unstructured physical fun activities, such as climbing trees, sawing wood, jumping on a trampoline, before you set him on the road of specialised coaching in a specific sport.
Fine motor skills: So many parents, in their keen desire to prepare their child for school, give them workbooks and pencil and paper tasks. Many parents begin teaching their child to write so that they can “hit the ground running” when they enter school. Unfortunately, this can have the negative effect of your child developing an inefficient pencil grip, which hampers writing for many years to come. This is because using a pencil correctly requires a child to have finger and thumb stability and a fairly high level of coordination. The best way to help your child be ready to learn to write is to play lots of hand-strengthening games at home. Games that include flicking marbles, crumpling paper, cutting, beading, tying knots and weaving pieces of paper to make table mats. Climbing on the jungle-gym is also a very good way to help your child develop both the coordination and hand muscle strength to prepare him for easy and efficient writing.
Sensory Integration: We need all our senses to work and interact together so that we can be comfortable in our environment. Children begin developing their senses and the communication between them through interaction with the environment. The more opportunity children have to play with diverse media and in different sensory settings the better they can develop their sensory systems. A child with an inefficient sensory system struggles to work and learn at his real potential.
Visual perceptual skills: Visual perception develops through a child’s interaction with his environment. When a child stretches his arm to reach a high branch, or climbs through a tunnel in an obstacle course, he is developing his spatial perception. Shape perception is developed by a child grasping and manipulating many different objects in play. When he cannot find the toy he wants and has to search for it in his toy-box, he is developing figure-ground perception. Figure-ground perception helps him separate the words from a body of text for reading and find his place when he is copying from the board in school.
Verbal skills and Language: Children playing are constantly talking, either with themselves, explaining the aspects of the imaginary situation, or with the other children involved. Researchers have found that less verbal children speak more during imaginary play. In imaginary play, children are therefore experimenting with and developing their language and communication skills.
Playing games where word sounds are changed and learning silly rhymes or making up nonsense words, helps children develop their phonics skills and auditory processing. If these are simply taught in a formal way, the child feels no real ownership and finds it harder to remember all the different sounds the written letters represent. If he plays games and experiments with the sounds in words, his feeling of being in control of the words and the sounds is greater, making it easier for him to learn and remember his phonics. He develops an actual concept of how sounds make up words. The reading programme I developed uses play to build phonics skills, the games continue the child’s reading development with fun and movement. This reduces the sense of apprehension so many children have around learning phonics and reading and allows them to develop their skills, while discovering that reading and the written word is fun.
Thinking skills (cognition): Thinking is a kind of “inner speech”. We talk silently to ourselves to think through things and solve problems. Children in imaginative play begin to develop this skill through talking aloud and explaining everything that is happening in the game. (Think of the children playing in the “home corner” in your playschool and how they tell each other what to do and talk to the dolls and teddies). Slowly, as they become more practiced, this talking changes to become “inner speech” (they think it but don’t say it out loud). This is a major foundation for developing thinking and reasoning skills.
We also know that showing a child how to do something has far less educational impact on him than providing him with the material and allowing him to play and experiment and discover for himself.
Reading: To read well, a child needs to have developed the ability to notice the separate sounds in words. He also needs to be able to recognise similarities and differences in how words sound (eg: rhyming words or words that sound the same but have different meanings). Trying to learn these in a formal setting is daunting and removes the chance of the child feeling that he can take ownership of words; instead he feels that words are foist upon him and outside of his control.
Reading also needs good visual perceptual skills. Shape perception allows us to recognise the similarities and differences in the shape of letters. Figure-ground perception is needed to be able to see the separate words on the page and the separate letters in the words. Spatial perception allows us to see where one word starts and another ends and which way round a letter must face.
We use two eyes to read and the part of our brain that develops our language and auditory processes is on the opposite side to where our visual perception develops. We need visual perception to recognise the written letters and auditory processing to convert them to the sounds and words they represent. Therefore, we need good communication between both sides of the brain; this is bilateral integration. Children begin to develop bilateral integration through movement and playing in their environment with different objects and obstacles.
Emotional: Every one of us parents want our child to be emotionally contented and stable, to have a strong sense of self worth and self esteem. Imaginative play gives our children the opportunity to work through aspects of their lives with which they are struggling. It allows them the space to examine and change and minimize consequences of their own actions and experiment with different end results to situations. This playing helps children “work through” difficult emotional situations, developing positive coping strategies.
Social skills: Play gives children practice in the art of compromise. You will often hear children in imaginative play, arguing and debating about who gets which role or how the role ought to be played and if it’s acceptable to behave in that way in a particular role. They are experimenting with and trying to understand the social rules of their world. They also learn to share and to take turns and to help each other.
Play develops through fairly standard stages and each stage is a necessary precursor for the next. These stages provide the key foundations for our children to become well-prepared to cope with the physical, cognitive, emotional and social demands of formal schooling and adulthood. We are not doing our children harm by giving them time to play. We are not reducing their chances in the adult world. On the contrary, by giving our children time to play and even incorporating play into our lessons, we are supporting the very foundations of development that our children need if they are to achieve their real potential in this world.