Albert Einstein is credited with saying “Play is the highest form of research.” Article 31 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states that, "all children have the right to play and rest".
So play must be really important. But why?
Play is one of the most important needs your child has. Children need time and space to play – to build, to imagine, to wonder, to create, to marvel at nature, to enjoy company or be alone. As parents, it is up to us to make sure that our children have the freedom to play.
What does play do for children?
Allowing time for unstructured, uninterrupted play gives children the opportunity to:
- Relax, have fun and be stress-free
- Develop healthy bodies and minds
- Think creatively and be creative with their hands
- Satisfy their natural curiosity
- Imagine all manner of wondrous things
- Improvise and make believe
- Experience roles other than their own
- Make sense of their world
- Explore and develop physical skills
- Try out new skills
- Learn how to occupy themselves
- Initiate their own activities
- Have control and make their own rules
- Be happy in their own company
- Understand that play does not mean spending money
- Interact with other people and the environment
- Make friends and see another's point of view
- Build relationships
- Develop their verbal skills
- Learn to problem-solve independently
- Express and manage their feelings
- Self regulate and self discipline
That's a lot of learning going on while your child is happily playing! The social, emotional, physical and verbal skills above are all vital to the complete development of children.
Play can involve all the senses and this is especially important for babies who explore their new world through sight, touch, hearing, taste and feelings. Parents can help babies and children to learn about their family environment and develop skills by sharing play and providing developmentally appropriate items to see, touch, hear and taste. (These don't have to be expensive toys " there are many everyday things at home which will serve the purpose.) This doesn't mean that you have to be with your child all the time, stimulating and entertaining. Children and babies also need quiet and alone playtime to set their own pace and develop concentration skills.
Who to play with?
A parent playing and conversing with a child for some time every day sends a message to the child that…
- Play is important * Play is fun * The parent values time spent with the child * The relationship with the child is important to the parent
… and it gives the parent an opportunity to model desired behaviour. This also applies to grandparents and other significant adults.
Playing with other children is important as they get to pre-school age. Social and language skills will be further developed by this play, whether it is one-on-one or in a group. This doesn't need to be a complicated or costly undertaking " an hour at the local park or in the backyard, a casual playgroup where Mums enjoy a cup of coffee or tea while their children draw or look at books or build with blocks " these are easy ways to help your children socialise.
Playing alone is also vital to your child's development as it allows the child to plan and carry out his or her own game in his or her own time. The freedom to make decisions, be whoever the child wants to be, explore, test new skills and use the power of imagination, gives the child an opportunity to grow in many areas of social and emotional learning. Children often talk to themselves while playing and this is something to be encouraged, especially when they are doing something challenging, as it fosters concentration, effort, problem-solving and success.
When we talk about children's play, often the first thing that comes to mind is toys. But the best kind of play only has one main ingredient " imagination " and costs nothing.
A lot of "playtime" for children now involves sitting watching television and playing video games or in classes learning to dance, speak another language, swim, play the violin or defend themselves with karate. None of these activities promote a very important skill, that is, self-regulation or self-control. Planning and playing make-believe games helps children develop the critical skill of self-regulation. Children with good self-regulation are able to control their emotions and behaviour, resist impulses and show self-discipline. Children who are able to manage their feelings and pay attention are better able to learn.
And as Laura Berk, Professor of Psychology at Illinois State University has found through her research with preschool children, "children who are most effective at complex make-believe play take on that responsibility (independently cleaning up after an activity in preschool) with… greater willingness, and even will assist others in doing so without teacher prompting." An added bonus!
So it seems that in the hurry to give children everything that parents believe they need, including stimulation, protection and lots of material things, we have unfortunately devalued one of the most important aspects of our children's lives " free play.