As adults, we often think that play—one of the most natural things for a child to do—diverts young ones from what we believe are more important activities, such as studying. Parents can get caught up in the belief that limiting play is necessary in order for children to learn and be more responsible and productive. Play is seen as more of a reward for having finished one’s lessons and assignments, but not as an activity for which time is carved out.
However, many studies have shown that play can not only co-exist with learning, but it is, in fact, an essential ingredient in cognitive development. Play helps children develop cognitive processes, such as remembering, problem-solving, and decision-making. Young children can also develop their language and literacy skills by, say, telling stories to their stuffed animals or creating dialogues with their action figures. Basic social skills, such as sharing, taking turns, and resolving conflict, are also learned when children play with their peers.
According to a 2007 journal article from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), play enables children to use their creativity, while developing their imagination, dexterity, as well as their physical, cognitive, and emotional strength.
Further, a parent’s beliefs about the balance between play and learning can make a key difference in the early childhood development of their children. A 2018 study found that children whose mothers valued both play and academics showed better cognitive development than those whose mothers valued play more than academics. And compared to those whose mothers valued academics more than play, these children also had better socio-emotional and overall development.
Learning Through Play
A play-based approach to learning has proven to be an effective way to teach young children. UNICEF cited some examples of how children learn critical skills as they play, such as making a plan and following through, learning from trial and error, using the imagination, and applying concepts of quantity, science, and movement.
Children at play also learn how to communicate with others and negotiate different points of view. They also derive satisfaction from their own accomplishments.
For children between 6 to 8 years, play-based learning continues to be critical, according to UNICEF, because it can transform the educational experiences of children in the early primary grades and strengthen their motivation to learn and enhance their mastery of academic concepts. Further, encouraging interest and motivation through play brings children on board in contributing to their own learning.
Play Reduces Stress
“Children need to develop a variety of skill sets to optimize their development and manage toxic stress,” according to a 2018 journal article from the AAP. Research showed that play enhances brain structure and function and promotes executive function, which allow people to pursue goals and ignore distractions. When parents and children play together, the joy and communication shared can regulate the body’s stress response.
The article also added that play is “fundamentally important for learning 21st century skills.” These skills are problem solving, collaboration, and creativity, which all require the executive functioning skills that are important for their success as adults.
It is high-time that play be given an important role in a child’s overall development. After all, as parents, we want our children to grow and develop in a holistic way.
Here are some ways that parents can incorporate play in their children’s day.
Start at Home
Chores can be a fun way to incorporate play in a child’s day-to-day activities. Asking your child to organize the pantry, for instance, can help children exercise their reasoning skills by thinking about which items should go together and such. Understanding simple relationships between things is foundational in learning science and mathematics.
Conversing with your children can also be a powerful tool to encourage creativity and imagination. For instance, when listening to them talk about their day, ask questions like: “Why do you think that happened?” or “What do you think the outcome will be if the opposite thing occurred?” This will prompt your child to explore different scenarios and think out of the box.
Offer Space and Materials
Create a space in your home where your child can play in a safe and supportive environment. There are many educational games out there, such as Boggle or Scrabble, but you may also choose to provide them with art materials to unleash their creativity! You may also provide printed materials and writing tools and create a writing corner.
The space does not have to be a big one, what is important is to let your child know that you encourage play as part of their activities.
Participate in the Play Experience
Experts recommend parents to play with their children. Try doing activities that will trigger the child’s sense of curiosity and show them how much you enjoy discovering and learning new things. This will help children develop their love for learning. Plus, think of it as your time to bond!
Set Aside Time for Free Play
Free play typically means that it is voluntary, hence child-directed, internally motivated, and pleasurable. Provide opportunities for your child to explore and interact with the things, people, and events around them. Unstructured play encourages children to use all of their senses, explore their environment, and even make up their own rules. In the 2007 AAP article, undirected play allows children to learn how to work in groups, to share, negotiate, resolve conflicts, and learn self-advocacy skills.
Parents can provide opportunities for children to learn in a fun and effective way. Remember that play is not just about having fun, rather it can be an avenue for children to take risks, experiment, and test boundaries. The AAP article reiterated that learning thrives when children are given some control over their own learning, especially when the demands of today’s world require more application, creativity, and innovation.
2018 journal article from the American Academy of Pediatrics: https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/142/3/e20182058#:~:text=One%20study%20documented%20that%20positive,activities%20and%20social%E2%80%93emotional%20development.
2007 study: https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/119/1/182#:~:text=Play%20allows%20children%20to%20use,important%20to%20healthy%20brain%20development.&text=It%20is%20through%20play%20that,in%20the%20world%20around%20them.