No matter if your child is two or twelve, as parents we’re constantly balancing fun with academics. While intuitively we know that play is important, opening children up to critical learning opportunities seems just as important to every parent.
This is not to take a stand of academics versus play; clearly both are important. It is equally important to recognize that play is not merely recess, a break from learning, but play is, in fact, a critical component of learning. It is not just our intuition that tells us play is important; science has proven it as well. Children unequivocally, and undoubtedly, learn through play at every age.
Play starts with infants engaging in “parallel play” or individual play. Through blocks or even grabbing their own feet, infants learn spatial recognition, where their body ends and about cause and effect, self-awareness and physical consequences.
As children get older, they engage in more interactive physical and imaginary play, manipulating toys and objects in new and different ways. As an infant, a toy may have been seen as one thing, perhaps just a block. Later, children often see the same toys as different representations in the world. Toddlers may often utilize blocks as tools, buildings, rocket ships, instruments and more.
As children get older they interact, engage and socialize with others more and more. With socialization children build both verbal and nonverbal communication skills, learning how to talk and express themselves through play. Through play they learn to interpret gestures, like when a friend puts her hand up it means I should stop but if she smiles it means I can keep going. Through play children learn how to apply this skill throughout their lives in different social situations.
Play can teach a lesson in the fine art of compromise and setting limits. As difficult as it can be, children often learn to let others in line go first, to share and even to be the strongest or fastest so play can continue. Creating roles through play allows for personal rules to be developed, which stems from making observations from others through modeling interactions or situations.
Play also helps children develop social-emotional regulation, the ability to recognize emotions in themselves; in others allows them to learn natural or appropriate reactions. When a friend is crying, children learn how to soothe, to put an arm around friends, to offer a redirected activity. Likewise, children learn when a friend is laughing they want to be part of that fun, that good feeling that comes from laughter.
Gross motor skills, such as running, jumping, climbing and catching are developed through play as muscles, balance, coordination and proprioception strengthen. Furthermore, when children take turns climbing a tree or playing with apparatus, they are practicing socialization skills such as communication and taking turns, certainly an important skill at all ages.
Through a child’s natural playing, her interests become observable. If your child has an affinity for everything dinosaur, then you can use dinosaurs to encourage discovery, reading and later writing and even math. Learning predominantly happens through intrinsic motivation at any age – but children need the scaffolding from adults to supply them with the materials, time and tools necessary to further their learning, growth and interests. ✿
Nicole Ben-Artzi is the Director of Early Childhood Education, Merage Jewish Community Center.