Play is Important for Child Development and Learning

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We are living in a highly pressurised and competitive world. There are more people chasing fewer jobs and in order to compete and survive in this world, our children need to be as highly educated as possible. This has led parents to pressurise play-schools and nursery schools to begin teaching children reading, writing and arithmetic in the hope that they will be better prepared for formal schooling when they enter Grade 1.

Cutting play time to spend more time and effort on formal learning is like saying to your builder that you want him to forgo the foundations but spend more time, money and effort in creating a beautiful, tall, sleek building. The first high winds or earth tremor will shake the building to the ground. Play is a child’s learning foundation. Play is not simply a way of spending time, nor is it even just a way of expending excess energy so that the child can sit still and listen in class.

Lev Vygotsky was very well known and esteemed for his work in researching how children learn and the best methods to ensure that real learning actually happens. He said that “in play it is as though he [the child] were a head taller than himself. As in the focus of a magnifying glass, play contains all developmental tendencies in a condensed form; in play it is as though the child were trying to jump above the level of his normal behaviour.” What he is saying here is that in play, a child uses and practices his skills, stretching himself into the next developmental stage.

Which skills does play develop?

Gross motor: This is the obvious area. People see children running and climbing and can clearly see that they are developing their muscle strength, coordination and balance. Parents want their children to quickly move from doing this in free play to participating in organised sports. While organised sport is good for children, if the child’s gross motor activity becomes too regulated too soon, he is going to specialise in some movements (those specific to his sports) and miss out on the development of others (such as climbing trees). The more diverse a child’s physical play can be, the more chance he has of developing his muscles and overall coordination in a balanced way. He is less likely to develop early tight tendons ( I see many children with tight tendons at the back of the knees) and less likely to develop weak core muscles (we are seeing more and more young children walking around with poor posture due to weak core muscles).

Fine motor: Beginning to learn to use a pencil before you have developed finger and thumb strength and stability results in a child developing an inefficient pencil grip. When a child has weak thumb stabilisers, he is likely to wrap his thumb around his index finger to try to create greater stability. This makes it very difficult for him to then develop the necessary finger isolation (separate movement of the fingers to give easy, dextrous pencil control). Children who have not yet developed their wrist stability will try to use whole-arm movements to do their drawing and writing and will press very hard. If a child has not developed the bilateral integration (this happens in the brain and is the smooth, efficient communication of the right side of the brain with the left) cutting will be difficult and he will have difficulty writing across his page and reading across a page or school board. Beginning to use a pencil too soon therefore inhibits learning in a formal class setting, rather than helping it.

How can we develop all these fine motor foundations? Climbing ropes and trees and swinging from “monkey bars” build core strength, shoulder girdle strength, wrist and hand strength and bilateral integration. A child who is encouraged to experiment with clay, tearing paper, finger-painting and painting with different sized sponges is practicing his fine motor skills and preparing his hands to cope well with a pencil.

Sensory Integration: Children who have an opportunity to play with diverse media and in different sensory settings are better able to develop their sensory systems. Allowing a child to spend time in the sensory environments he finds most comfortable, gives him the inner strength to cope with those he finds more challenging and then gradually build his sensory system to be able to cope with them.

Visual perceptual skills: Visual perception develops through a child’s interaction with his environment. When a child stretches his arm to reach a high branch, or climbs through a tunnel in an obstacle course, he is developing his spatial perception. Shape perception is developed by a child grasping and manipulating many different objects in play. When he cannot find the toy he wants and has to search for it in his toy-box, he is developing figure-ground perception.

Verbal skills and Language: Children who are playing are constantly talking, either with themselves, explaining the aspects of the imaginary situation, or with the other children involved. Researchers have found that less verbal children speak more during imaginary play. In imaginary play, children are therefore experimenting with and developing their language and communication skills.

Playing fun games where word sounds are changed, learning silly rhymes and making up nonsense words helps children develop their phonics skills and auditory processing. If these are simply taught in a formal way, the child feels no real ownership and finds it harder to remember all the different sounds the written letters represent. If he plays games and experiments with the sounds in words, his feeling of being in control of the words and the sounds is greater, making it easier for him to learn and remember his phonics. He develops an actual concept of how sounds make up words.

Thinking skills (cognition): Thinking is a kind of “inner speech”. We talk silently to ourselves to think through things and solve problems. Children in imaginative play begin to develop this skill through talking aloud and explaining everything that is happening in the game. (Think of the children playing in the “home corner” in your playschool and how they tell each other what to do and talk to the dolls and teddies). Slowly, as they become more practised, this talking changes to become “inner speech” (they think it but don’t say it out loud). This is a major foundation for developing thinking and reasoning skills.

We also know that showing a child how to do something has far less educational impact on him than providing him with the material and allowing him to play and experiment and discover for himself.

Reading: To read well, a child needs to have developed the ability to notice the separate sounds in words. He also needs to be able to recognise similarities and differences in how words sound (eg: rhyming words or words that sound the same but have different meanings). Trying to learn these in a formal setting is daunting and removes the chance of the child feeling that he can take ownership of words; instead he feels that words are foist upon him and outside of his control.

Reading also needs good visual perceptual skills. Shape perception allows us to recognise the similarities and differences in the shape of letters. Figure-ground perception is needed to be able to see the separate words on the page and the separate letters in the words. Spatial perception allows us to see where one word starts and another ends and which way round a letter must face.

We use two eyes to read and the part of our brain that develops our language and auditory processes is on the opposite side to where our visual perception develops. We need visual perception to recognise the written letters and auditory processing to convert them to the sounds and words they represent. Therefore, we need good communication between both sides of the brain; this is bilateral integration. Children begin to develop bilateral integration through movement and playing in their environment with different objects and obstacles.

Emotional: Many parents want their children to be emotionally contented and stable, to have a strong sense of self worth and self esteem. Imaginative play gives children the opportunity to work through aspects of their lives they are struggling with. It allows them the space in which to examine and change and minimize consequences of their own actions and experiment with different end results to situations. This playing helps children “work through” difficult emotional situations and to develop positive coping strategies.

Social skills: Play gives children practice in the art of compromise. You will often hear children in imaginative play, arguing and debating about who gets which role or how the role ought to be played and if it’s acceptable to behave in that way in a particular role. They are experimenting with and trying to understand the social rules of their world. They also learn to share and to take turns and to help each other.

Play develops through fairly standard stages and each stage is a necessary precursor for the next. These stages provide the key foundations for our children to become well-prepared to cope with the physical, cognitive, emotional and social demands of formal schooling. Rushing children through the different stages, does not mean they achieve school readiness quicker; it means they lose out on the developmental window to develop strongest foundations.