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What is the value of play in young children’s lives? Is play essential for developmental growth and school readiness? These are questions that are being asked as the pre-school years receive national attention from parents, educators and the government.
There is a large body of information, based on years of research and first-hand observations that explores and explains ways that children learn at different ages and developmental stages. A major finding is that children from infancy on learn by doing, by having access to open-ended, hands-on, self-directed activities.
Most people would agree that they, themselves learn best when they are actively involved and having fun. Children are no exception.
Play offers opportunities that challenge and stimulate children’s creativity, curiosity and imagination.
Play heightens their interest and involvement.
Children develop and learn in stages and this is reflected in their play. These stages can and do overlap, and often do not correspond with the child’s chronological age. Children develop on an individual timetable, when they are developmentally ready, both physically and intellectually.
Infants are observers and solitary players. They use their senses to find out about the world and how things work.
As they become less self-involved and more mature, children go from solitary to parallel play, using realistic toys and props, while engaging in some pretend symbolic play, such as feeding a baby doll with a bottle.
Older children begin to develop concepts, try out new ideas, think of alternate solutions to problems and eventually substitute symbols for concrete objects.
This ability to think abstractly, make connections and create meanings in their minds is essential to literacy development and communication skills.
More complex play is a result of this type of thinking.
Through play children practice important social skills by interacting with their peers. They learn to cooperate, share, take turns and problem solve as they grow. They become less self-involved, more understanding and accepting of others’ point of view.
Language development is greatly enhanced by the verbal give and take that accompanies play.
These positive behaviors are especially encouraged by involvement in dramatic play. Dramatic play stimulates role-playing, modeling, use of the imagination and constructive play. Constructive play enhances hand–eye coordination and logical-mathematical thinking.
Children need space and time in a safe, accepting environment to play in. Parents can enrich and extend play by providing props that lead to imaginative play and enhance problem solving skills. Blocks, building and creating with materials and open-ended activities stimulate the child’s mind.
Children benefit from a balance of activities: large and small muscle, indoors and out, quiet and active, solitary and group play, plus simple rules and boundaries.
A number of children lead very busy lives today. Their days are filled with organized activities, which leave little time for children to enjoy free, unstructured play. Additionally, many of the marketed toys are “closed” rather than “open-ended,” leaving little or no time for imagination, problem solving or skill development. Children learn from inventing their own games and characters.
Young children learn best through play. Play builds concepts, develops skills, enhances learning in all areas and teaches positive behavior skills.
Play also encourages competency, independence and self-expression, gives children some control over their lives, and develops confidence and self-esteem. The playful experiences of early childhood can help children build skills necessary to lead responsible, happy and fulfilling lives.
Play is a vital part of young children’s lives and learning, and will help them in their school careers.
Margaret Blewett was a mentor teacher at Little Forest Playschool for many years.