What is Play?
Before we can answer the question of why play is important for children, we need to first understand what exactly is playing. Play is an attitude of life that every thriving child is born with. It is a desire to explore and be innovative with one’s surroundings or with an idea or concept. Moreover, it is a curiosity: “What will happen if I throw this leaf in the stream?” Additionally, it is finding the limits: “How fast can I run?” It is experimenting with role-playing: “What would it be like if I pretend to be the Daddy and you pretend to be the kid?”
Play is a critical part of learning. They get to take safe risks, practice social interaction, and discover what they are passionate about.
For adults, play is important when inventing anything new. As psychologist Carl Jung stated: “The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the objects it loves.” Do you want your child to think innovatively and be on the cutting edge of new technologies? Encourage them to play now while they are little. It will set them up for success in the future.
Child Development and Play
Childhood is a time of rapid development in an individual’s life. Child development is a multifaceted complex process. To have a healthy, well-rounded child, who grows into a responsible and successful adult, the child must develop in all areas.
The primary areas of child development are: physical, cognitive (language and intellectual), social, emotional, and creative. Each of these areas is wide-reaching. For example, physical development involves gross motor muscles, such as those used to run and jump, as well as fine motor muscles, which are the smaller hand muscles needed to hold a spoon or pencil. There is also sensory development where a child learns to use their senses such as sight, hearing, taste, smell, muscle coordination, and balance.
Think that’s a lot to help your child learn? You’re right. The good news is, children naturally exercise and grow in all these areas as they play. This is especially true if they have a range of play experiences.
Some examples of how play impacts development include:
- Physical Development:
- Gross motor muscles: Spending time at the park often includes climbing, running, jumping, and reaching.
- Fine motor muscles: colouring with crayons, even if just scribbling, strengthens hand muscles.
- Language Development: Learning language includes a lot of repetition. When playing, children are likely to talk to their friends or to themselves, both of which foster language development.
- Intellectual Development: When a child plays at a beach, they learn that water always flows downward and that water can erode sandcastles.
- Social Development: Children learn to negotiate who will play which role in a game. Those with leadership personalities learn how to lead in a way that their friends want to follow.
- Emotional Development: Children learn that overcoming frustrations and persevering brings rewards.
- Creative Development: Play gives children ways to come up with new ideas and experiment with better ways of doing things.
- Physical Development:
What is so Special About Play When Compared with Classroom/Teacher-Led Learning?
Okay, so play is important, but what does play give a child that classroom/teacher-led learning cannot? Good question. Most school subjects require structured instruction and memorization of how things work. The rules of these subjects must be learned. Indeed, without understanding these subjects, it would be hard to succeed in today’s competitive world.
In a sense, school gives a child the building blocks, and play teaches them how to build well. Therefore, school is very important, but so is the ability to use the knowledge learned in school. Today’s workplaces crave innovation. Innovation is taught through play. That is, innovation comes from an inner bent toward exploring new concepts.
Play also teaches children how to problem solve and think outside the box. On top of that, it teaches them how to take initiative and negotiate. They learn what is worth fighting for, and what is not as they create new games with their friends. All these skills will serve them well in the workforce.
Play Looks Different as The Child Grows
Did you know that play looks different at different ages? Early on, as an infant, play looks like putting objects in their mouth. In this way, they explore the environment around them and gain information. Toddlers love to fill buckets and then dump them out again. They build towers and knock them right back down. They are exploring how objects relate to each other. A preschooler is just beginning to gain enough language skill to play with other children well. They begin role-playing and are starting to ask questions. Later, as a child enters early elementary, their games become more complex. They ask “why?” over and over and over again. As a result, they experiment with ideas and often what they learn in school will seep into their play. These examples are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how play changes as the child grows.
A Father’s Role in Play is Important Too
Now that you understand that play is important for children, you may be wondering what your role as a father is. Should you walk away and simply let them play however they want? The answer depends on many factors.
The very first thing you should do is stop and observe. Watch what your child is doing and how they are playing.
Start by assessing the risks. Play is important in that it allows children to take safe risks, which is a very good and healthy part of childhood. This will look different for different ages. For a toddler, this might mean walking up the stairs without holding your hand, even though you are right there ready to catch them. Preschoolers likely consider rolling down a hill risky. Safe risks for early elementary children could include learning to use the monkey bars at the playground. Your job as their parent is to help them learn which risks are okay and which risks are too dangerous.
Second, keep an eye out for negative peer behaviour. Are the children putting each other down? Is there bullying taking place? If the answer is yes, then consider carefully your next step. There are times when an adult needs to step in, and there are other times when the children need to learn to handle it by themselves. Sometimes the best course of action is to carefully observe the interaction, then, afterwards, discuss it with the affected child and give suggestions for how to handle it better next time. Remember that children are still in the process of developing their social skills. That’s why play is important; it gives them an arena to practice in.
When the risks aren’t too dangerous and the social interactions are good, there is something else you can do to help your child learn and grow through play. It involves psychologist Lev Vygotsky’s child development theory of scaffolding and the zone of proximal development. In its simplest form, this theory suggests that an adult should carefully observe where a child is at in some area of development. Then help them go one step further. Sometimes this will include actual teaching, however, since young children are excellent at learning from examples, often it works well simply to model the more advanced step. Be aware that jumping too far beyond a child’s current level of development will leave them in the dust. Therefore, it must be just enough beyond where they are currently at.
For example, if you notice your child building with blocks by simply stacking one block on top of another. Your job, then, is to come alongside them and model how to do it just one step more advanced than what they are doing. For instance, you could sit down beside your child and play with them. Except, instead of building the exact same way they are building, you might make a base of three blocks and put two blocks on top of that, finishing with one at the very top. This would model how to build a stronger pyramid-like tower.
Play Allows Children to Discover Their Passion
Play gives children an opportunity to discover what they are passionate about. For some children, sports will capture their attention as they play with their friends. Others discover a passion for engineering as they build impressive skyscrapers out of blocks. Some children will find they enjoy coordinating people and activities. Perhaps they will become an office manager leading a team of people. It could be that they discover a love of working with their hands and, therefore, become a carpenter. With the number of career options your child will be bombarded with at the end of high school, it is helpful if they can begin to discover their passions while they are young. Play is important as it provides an excellent opportunity to do just that.
In conclusion, play is not primarily for fun. Play is important for preparing your child for the future. Therefore, encourage them to keep on exploring and learning and asking questions. The innovators of tomorrow are those who learn to play well now as a child.
Interested in learning more about playing with your child? Check out some of our other blog posts.