It’s interesting that play is viewed by society as a frivolous and somewhat indulgent pastime, a reward, if you will, for working hard. And yet for children, play is work. There are many research papers written on the subject and the conclusions are the same, play is vitally important for a child’s development because it contributes to their cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being.
We all learn best when we are actively engaged in what we are doing. When your young child jumps in a puddle over and over again, they are being scientists, experimenting and making connections: ‘Why does the water break up and leap into the air? Why does it all fall back in the puddle and become one again? Why is it wet?’ Not to mention the pure physical sensation, joy and challenge of jumping in a puddle! As adults, we are often too quick to interfere in a child’s play when what we should do is try to step back and allow your child to follow, uninterrupted, their own thread of enquiry and interest.
If you can, take time to observe your child playing. You will often find that they are deeply immersed in the activity, persisting even when there are distractions around them. Their brain is ‘switched on’, they are making decisions, discoveries, retrieving memories related to what they are doing, making connections. All these skills are invaluable when it comes to learning. Allowing children to be the key decision-makers in their play builds confidence and helps them become more self- aware. One of my favourite quotes on the subject of play was made by Lev Vygotsky “In play a child is always above his average age, above his daily behaviour, in play, it’s as though he were a head taller than himself.”
Encourage your children to make discoveries for themselves, rather than giving them the answers. Children need to be engaged in their learning for it to have meaning, as Nancy Stewart, an inspirational expert and advocate for early childhood education remarked. “The learner has to do the work,” she says. “You can’t teach someone something as if you’re just putting it in their brain – the learner has to take experience in, make sense of it and have the interest and the motivation in the first place.”
I will always remember a wonderful moment one morning when I was working in our outdoor Early Years setting (back when I was still teaching). One 3 year old girl was amazed to discover that the moon was visible in the sky. We wondered together why it was there during the day. She carried on playing in the sandpit, quiet, thoughtful and then suddenly announced
“I know, it’s just drifting back towards the night-time”
Such a profound, rich, and linguistically beautiful hypothesis would have been missed had she been given the answer.
When children play, they challenge themselves physically too, testing their abilities, often repeating an activity until they have the reward of mastery. Children develop essential fine and gross motor skills, flexibility, reflexes and balancing skills – skills that will serve them throughout their lives. They learn to assess risk and understand their body’s limitations. If they can play outside, so much the better, they will have the additional benefit of the natural world, sunlight, fresh air, space and trees to climb!
“Outdoor play is increasingly recognized as a foundation for children’s healthy development. Children are hard-wired to need nature and to play in their natural environments. Research shows that unstructured play that takes place outdoors is vital to children’s social, emotional, cognitive, and physical development.” - Mariani Brussoni
For children, play is a safe space, their space. They can try things out unencumbered by the fear of failure or doing it the ‘wrong’ way, they can solve problems through trying different ways of doing things and use their imaginations to come up with solutions. In this way, they build self-belief and confidence.
So next time your child is playing, try to stand back, observe, marvel at the way they are reaching an understanding of the world and remember that they are working and developing all the skills that will help them to remain curious, excited, motivated learners throughout their lives.