Children at play are not playing about. Their games should be seen as their most serious minded activity” Michel de Montaigne 16th century writer
Children learn through play, but equally importantly, play teaches children how to learn. Psychologists from the early days of infant watching have been in no doubt that play drives development in the early years. The inner life of small children is considered fascinating by most of us, nature’s natural parents, but sadly there are others who are impatient with child logic and flights of imaginative fantasy. These adults in a hurry prefer the fast pace of modern life and see value in finding short cuts to speed up everything they do. They are easily convinced that childhood is a candidate for a makeover to ensure more happens in less time. Recent government reviews of child care have taken this stance encouraging structured, adult-led groups to start teaching maths and literacy early. This appeals to those who believe play is a poor use of a child’s time.
We need to speak up for small children who can’t speak out for themselves. When we look at the early years carefully we see that children make an amazing journey from helpless baby to capable and confident young child. The combination of play and high quality relationships at home and in pre-school creates this transformation. It is a miracle but it is also one we can understand and explain.
What does play contribute to a child’s development? How does playing help a child to build their skills, step by tiny step? Why does play act as such a powerful motivator to ensure the child is avidly curious to learn about the world? Play is not just a way of passing time; it is the engine and power house of child development which is special for 10 important reasons.
- The brain thrives on gaining knowledge. A child has a mind of their own from the beginning and sets out to learn more about themselves and the world around them. Play is what happens when a child follows their own line of reasoning to see where it takes them. Small children are mini scientists exploring and testing out what they find. They ask questions and make judgments. “What is this?” “What can it do?|” “How is it like other objects I know about?” “How is it different?” If we look at the lives of scientists, inventors, and artists we see that playful experimentation is what “creates” their major breakthroughs.
- Play develops language and communication. Children learn the language they need. A busy child at play will share what they are doing with an adult by commenting and asking questions which have a powerful relevance to what they are doing. The concept of sustained shared thinking acknowledges the importance of starting from the child and allowing their needs and their world view to shape the dialogue between adult and child. This builds the child’s confidence as well as developing knowledge. When adults ask questions or attempt to teach new concepts a child soon loses interest if it doesn’t resonate with what they are doing. When you observe this you can see the child’s unease and anxiety at being taken out of their comfort zone.
- Play is fun and makes us happy: when you think back to your early childhood what are your treasured memories? Maybe you remember a special toy fondly or the time you went on an adventure in the woods or built a den. Children value their achievements. What makes a child feel competent is what they learn to do for themselves. That’s why children want to keep models they’ve made or have their art displayed at home.
- Play reduces stress by helping children feel comfortable and in control. “I can do what I want and need to do” Children typically have much less freedom than a generation ago which makes them tense. I believe that some of the rise in behaviour problems is linked to this limited opportunity to gain satisfaction and achievement through play.
- Play helps children discover their strengths: children are attracted to activities they can soon learn to do successfully. Once one level is mastered they move onto the next challenge. Play gives a child the freedom to experiment and discover what works well for them, what skills they have and what they can make happen. Playing to your strengths not only builds a child’s competence but creates confidence and excitement at the prospect of learning something new.
- Play makes practice fun: if you have something to learn you need to rehearse it and repeat important steps many, many times for the skill to develop. Play is the perfect system for practicing developing skills whether it is learning to climb or becoming a more skillful communicator. Watch how happy children are to repeat things which interest them. This experience of playful practice helps children to recognise and accept the importance of practice in other areas of learning once they get to school.
- Play builds a child’s ability to concentrate. Play is exciting and absorbing and results in deep concentration for the young child. Learning to concentrate emerges from play as a pleasant side effect. Young children are designed to concentrate on what interests them and find it more difficult to concentrate on something led by an adult. A child’s concentration span increases the more experience they have of deeply absorbing play. Learning to shut out distractions is an important part of this. When a child has restricted opportunities for uninterrupted play this has a direct effect on their ability to control their attention.
- Play teaches organisation skills. Play may start with a spontaneous idea, but it quickly becomes planned and self-managing. “What shall I do now?” “Where shall I take this next?” Psychologists call this ability to plan and oversee a work in progress Executive Function. As a child’s brain develops, this skill becomes more established. This vital cognitive skill is the foundation for effective learning. Children who have well developed executive function will be successful in education. The Plan, Do, Review process is designed to reinforce this developing skill.
- Play helps a child become self-motivated which is vitally important as children make their way through school. Teachers can’t oversee every detail of a child’s work. Children who have experience of successful learning through play will become more active learners who are not passively dependent on adults overseeing every learning moment. This belief in their competence to learn will transfer to classroom learning.
- Play nurtures creativity – the ability to use what is available in the room or in your head to make something new out of the familiar requires a powerful imagination. The imagination is not just a pleasant place to visit; it is where all discoveries, inventions and new ideas are incubated. Creativity is seeing the world in a new and different way. Play is the ideal apprenticeship for creativity. The danger for children who are over scheduled with little free time is that it saps creativity. The areas of the brain which manages reflection and imagination are switched off when we are engaged with a demanding task. The imagination needs space to work its magic. That’s why our best ideas pop into our heads on a walk or in the bath. If we over schedule children they don’t have time to dream.
Jeni Hooper is an Educational and Child Psychologist. She is the author of What Children Need to be Happy, Confident and Successful.