This article was created for the ‘Bringing Up Great Kids’ email newsletter, a monthly newsletter about child psychology and development by childcare company, Koru Kids. You can sign up to the newsletter.
A right for every child
Play is so important for optimal child development that it has been recognised by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights as a right for every child. The British Toy Hobby Association has been campaigning for almost 10 years now. Their “Make Time 2 Play” campaign aims to encourage and to help parents find fun and inventive ways to create the time for their children to play, as well as educate parents on the unrivalled developmental benefits of play.
We recently caught up with our play experts, Dr. Sarah Peter, Child Psychologist at the NHS and Christine Havercroft QTS SPLD, our Education Director to understand what children are learning as they play and what role grown-ups can have in facilitating this important process.
So what exactly do children learn through play?
Dr. Peter tells us, it is now widely accepted that a capacity for creative exploration of their physical, social and mental environment is the foundation for a child’s healthy social, emotional and cognitive development. Having the confidence to shape what is found into something different and new is the basis for all creative activities and achievements, from the earliest game of peekaboo to the most complex scientific discoveries or works of art.
Former Headmistress and early years teacher Christine Havercroft, having worked with children for over 40 years across the world in the UK, Sweden, Japan and the Middle East, shares with us all the amazing benefits of play:
1. Play lays the foundation for literacy as it allows for many opportunities to develop language, speech, and vocabulary. Language development is fostered as a child plays and interacts with others. From playing little games such as ‘peek a boo’ with a baby to ‘becoming’ the patient for the fledgling doctor, parents can help their children become better communicators and listeners. Whether they play alone or with others, children are able to experiment with language and discover its purposes and effects. Lots of opportunities through imaginative play and role play for talking and listening, help children understand not only the importance of expressing yourself clearly but also the need to attend carefully to what others are saying. These are vital skills for success in school and the future ahead!
2. Play stimulates a child’s imagination. Children learn from experience, from what happens around them as they explore sights, sounds, smell, touch and taste. When a child becomes absorbed in the role they have created for themself, this creates the opportunities to ‘exercise’ their brain, begin to ‘train’ it to think creatively and to learn how to think for themself.
3. Play enhances cognitive learning. Studies have shown that play ‘rewires’ the brain by changing the connections of neurons in the prefrontal cortex. Without the experiences that play brings, these connections remain as they were. Role-play, fantasy and imaginative play by their very nature help develop cognitive ability and stimulate multiple types of intelligence. Engaging in this type of play helps children learn to solve problems, for example, by deciding on the rules for a game or the roles of various characters in a make-believe situation. These scenarios require children to use thinking skills including memory, logic and concentration that they will learn to use during their childhood and throughout adulthood.
4. Play develops social interactions and social skills. During play children increase their social competence and emotional maturity. Essentially, they are learning about themselves, who they are and how they fit into the world around them. Children learn how to be part of a group, to lead, to follow instructions, to play by the rules, to negotiate and to share. These are all vital skills that will help determine future academic performance and life satisfaction.
5. Play helps build active healthy bodies, stimulating children’s fine and gross motor development and positional awareness of their bodies as they move. Gross motor skills develop when a child makes full body movements, as they experiment with flying around as a pilot, climbing a ladder as a firefighter or hopping along as Peter Rabbit. Fine motor skills develop while a child makes detailed movements, as they handle small toys, draw pictures and make delicious recipes in the mud kitchen or sand pit.
6. Play supports emotional development by providing a safe way for children to express and cope with their feelings. Play allows children to effectively experiment with emotions such as feeling happy, excited, sad, angry or worried. Exposure to both positive and negative emotions is important. Children who have ‘played’ at being someone else may start to appreciate that everyone has feelings which can be different to their own. Children who are able to recognise this are far more likely to develop empathy and self awareness in the future. Learning how to accept and manage emotions in a positive way is a powerful life skill.
7. Play is fun! Play is a vital element of a child’s well being. By learning to play well, both alone and with others, sets children up to for contented and sociable behaviour. A great deal happens when children are ‘just playing’. They are developing skills, habits and attitudes that will stay with them throughout their lives. They are familiarising themselves with the world while exploring and testing their own limits. As they play, they learn to cope with frustration, make mistakes and improve, to empathise and share with others and to give vocal expression to their thoughts, feelings and ideas.
Independent and joint play
According to Dr. Peter, relationships are a fundamental aspect of play, and she always encourages there to be an element of this in every child’s life. There are however, often times when adults (no judgement!) purchase toys with the aim of entertaining their child so that they can get on with other things. It is important to realise that this is fine too, as long as they pick the right kinds of toys. She believes that the toys children play with should allow for both solo and joint play even if not explicitly.
The role of parents in the play experience is crucial, as they facilitate quality learning opportunities by providing the time, space and appropriate resources. Sarah Owen, Founder of Pyjama Drama, drama, music, movement and play for pre-school children says many children seem to be born with a natural ability to play, but some children find it more difficult and need to ‘learn’ how to play well and this is where parents can make a big difference. While it is very important that children play with their peers and are given opportunities for unstructured play, children who also play with a loved adult can benefit greatly. The benefits of having fun together cannot be underestimated!
So how to loosen up and unleash your inner child? It can be daunting to shed all those years of adulthood at first so we recommend trying the three-step approach below:
Observe: Watch your child closely to learn what he or she can do and has problems doing. Also, be aware of your child’s favorite activities.
Follow: Join in and play with your child so that he or she knows you are interested in what he or she is doing. You can add to the complexity of the play, but let your child take control and determine the direction of play.
Be creative: Let go of the adult idea that there is only one way to play with a toy. Use toys in new and different ways—you will be amazed at how many characters, props and situations you can come up with together. Being creative will make playing more fun for you and your child!
Selecting the right toys!
Children are just as prone to fads as adults are. Many trendy toys will be played with briefly and then forgotten. Toys that have withstood the test of time are a good choices, but many new and innovative toys from start-up companies should not be overlooked.
Dr. Peter is a strong advocate of toys that offer open-ended play and cater to a variety of learning styles. She says pioneering toys such as OjO’s Maker Kits provide endless opportunities for new insights, experimentation and creativity. These are toys that can be played with alone, but adult inventors and space explorers may find it hard to resist joining in!
With all products designed for kids—whether toys, video games, or augmented reality experiences—good design ultimately comes from understanding how children develop and promotes their engagement with the world, rather than to numb it.