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 – it’s a biological necessity. In particular, hands-on dexterity-intensive play brings high developmental benefits. The young thumb which comforts infants so much when placed in the mouth, is soon put to its ultimate purpose – facilitating fine-motor skill and thus building neural connections in the young brain.
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 – infants and toddlers without the capacity to communicate verbally must rely on their actions. If you inhibit play in children then you are robbing them of their only real mode of self-expression.
Through play a young child begins to make sense of how their world works. 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 grows a child’s cognition but also their spirit. A playful mind is most often a joyous mind, for play brings a child to that place where their growing curiosity, intellect and motor skills are in harmony. Setting their own goals and challenging themselves through play, children achieve their own ‘flow state’, where boredom and anxieties are put aside and the child becomes free to self-regulate their emotions and actions.
Play is difficult to define conceptually, 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.
Developmental stages in a youngster’s play are also well understood and verified by decades of observations by researchers. The growing social component of play is widely described according to a sequence beginning with solitary play and observation of others before moving on to more associative forms of play and finally achieving cooperative play. Stages in blocks play are also evident – a beginner will explore single blocks first before moving to stacks and rows, then creating enclosures and bridges. Advanced blocks play involves creation of complex and multi-faceted structures and incorporates dramatic and imaginative elements. These types of observations give us a window onto the developmental pathway and provide insight into the maturing intellect.
While understanding play in these ways is useful, it’s important not to over-analyze a playful child’s activities or, worse, interrupt or direct their play towards what we think might be a better or more beneficial activity. Adults can join in, but should play by the child’s 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!
By Robert Kappelle
Prep International KindergartenFirst published in The Knowledge Review, March 2019