Here are some of the things your child is experiencing and learning, along with ideas on how you can help boost the benefits of his play.
WORDS CHRISTEL GERALYN GOMES
Every new mum wants to give her child the best possible head start in life. That’s why, sometimes, it’s easy to let the impulse toward education overtake allowing your child adequate free play. While it’s tempting to think of play as frivolous or non-essential in this competitive world, experts tell us that play is quite the opposite – it is absolutely essential to your child’s learning, especially early on in life.
Here are some of the benefits of play that you may not be consciously aware of.
All Work and No Play Makes Jack a Dull Boy
According to Professor Kenneth R Ginsburg, behavioral science investigator at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and medical director of Covenant House Pennsylvania, “a hurried lifestyle, changes in family structure, and increased attention to academics and enrichment activities,” have come at the “expense of recess or free child-centered play”; which, according to him, is a largely detrimental thing.
“Play is essential to development because it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth,” Ginsburg says in his paper titled, The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds. So much so that the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights has recognised it as a right of every child.
Unfortunately, Ginsburg argues that “even children who are fortunate enough to have abundant available resources and who live in relative peace may not be receiving the full benefits of play” because they are raised in “an increasingly hurried and pressured style” that “limits the protective benefits they would gain from child-driven play”, he says. In his paper, he asks parents and educators to press for circumstances that allow each child to fully reap the advantages associated with play so that they may develop optimally.
So what exactly are some of the skills your little one is picking up as she stares at that puzzle, puts those building blocks together or enters a world of imagination with her dolls?
According to a research paper published in the Encyclopedia of Early Childhood Education, authors Fromberg and Gullo explain that play allows your child to pick up skills in the areas of language development, social competence, creativity, imagination, and thinking skills.
Physically, your child develops as she throws her body into play. Running, jumping, climbing, handling small objects and manoeuvring toys all help her develop dexterity, muscle control and become a master of her own body.
Critical neural connections are being made in your child’s brain as she plays. In the first few years of life, essential and formative ideas, such as learning the relationship between cause and effect first develop through play; your child begins to understand that pressing a button on a toy creates a sound, or pushing a toy car harder, takes it further across a room. Problem-solving and symbolic thinking also develop – your child understands that turning a block around helps it fit better into its slot or that putting two square blocks together makes a rectangle. Children playing together also have to problem-solve by way of managing conflict and finding a compromise. All of this learning occurs very rapidly in the early years of life.
Social and emotional development
Play can be a solo activity, or as your toddler grows, she transitions from parallel play to having an interactive and cooperative session with you or another child. Sharing, relating, empathy, and basic social skills such as learning to read human body language all develop as your child plays with a new friend. Learning to adjust her behaviour to that of other children later becomes the solid foundation upon which future social experiences are built, and you’ll want to start your child learning these skills as early as possible.
Imagination and creativity
There’s nothing that captures and stimulates a child’s imagination more than playtime. Objects as simple as the rope handles of a bag can become long-necked dinosaurs talking, grazing and interacting in a whole different world. Dolls have backstories and whole lives of their own and little boys soar through the skies in paper airplanes. Being able to create stories in one’s mind is an important skill to develop as much as possible for without imagination, creativity cannot exist.
Especially when engaged in social play with other children, your child’s language skills are put to practice as she communicates and co-creates stories with her friends. Introducing language-rich play sessions – such as those that involve roleplaying (pretending to be at a doctor’s office, a supermarket, restaurant or something similar) – can dramatically better your child’s vocabulary.
What You Can Do
As a parent or educator, you can help enhance the benefits of your child’s free play in a number of different ways, depending on your aim.
You are your bub’s first and most important playmate. In his earliest years, your facial expressions, movements and body language are all fascinating subjects of her attention. Listening to your voice, interacting with you and grabbing at your fingers are all ways in which your baby plays with you.
As your child grows, spending as much time as you can playing with her allows you to educate, teach, share values and better the communication between the two of you. At the same time, your child forms a deep, lasting bond with you as love and trust blossom though happy play sessions.
Free play with your child allows you to notice and appreciate her unique personality, as well as helps you view the world with freshness, through the eyes of your child. Playing can also be a marvellous de-stressor after a hard day’s work.
Pick the right tools
While it’s wonderful to allow everyday objects to capture your child’s imagination and improvisation, picking educational toys can be great for your child’s learning; but be sure to pay attention to age-appropriateness.
Sand and water are great tools for an early introduction to math and science. Use different container sizes and shapes to give your child an understanding of fluidity and volume, and explain the difference between solids and liquids. Puzzles and problem-solving toys like building blocks are always encouraged, as they will develop logical thinking.
If your child is in the first year of her life, “drop and fill” is a game your child will love and which will help with motor development. Cindy DeLuca, physical therapist assistant at Baystate Medical Center encourages you to fill containers with soft rubber objects or things you don't mind being dumped. “Take advantage of her interest in putting things in containers, and teach her to clean up," she says.
While it can be easy to constantly try to teach while playing with your child, try to hold yourself back from doing that and instead, flow with your child at her pace. Constant teaching will quickly make the session seem a lot less like play and can cause your child to lose interest or become frustrated if gone about wrong. Release the need to have your child get ahead, but simply let her be her wonderful, free-spirited self.