Play is undervalued these days. A child sitting with a pile of blocks on the floor is often described as “just playing” as if their actions are of no merit. But playing is not a trivial matter – in fact it is the key to a child reaching anything close to their learning potential.
Modern neural research shows clearly that the young brain is ready for rapid development for the first half dozen years at least. It’s no accident that a youngster’s instinct to play is so strong, for play is one of the keys to early brain development. Humans have evolved to play and for young children with limited communication skills it is the only way to express themselves. In a sense, play is the language of kids.
Through play a young child begins to make sense of what is going on around them. Push a ball and it will roll some distance – do the same with a block and it will only slide with your hand. When stacking though, the blocks work much better than the balls, but there are limits to how high they can go. From real experiences like this, children become sensitive to the rules of the world and gain inspiration to explore and experiment in the realm of possibility.
Play is a difficult concept to define but when examined closely by early-years professionals, various distinct types have been described. These include large and small-motor play, risk-taking play, construction play, sensory play, language play and imaginative & creative play. Socializing is also a big part of a wholesome play experience. Playing with others gives children valuable experiences in dealing with their peers and puts them on a pathway to developing cooperation, patience and responsibility.
Understanding play in this way is useful, but it’s important not to over-analyse a playful child’s activities or, worse, interrupt or direct their play towards what we think might be a better or more beneficial activity. Parents can join in, but should play by their rules. Let the child follow their own path and they will develop the true love of learning. It’s time to start taking play seriously.