No one teaches an infant to babble. Yet through babbling, an infant creates all the sounds that will make up his native language. Likewise, his progress in crawling, standing, and walking comes from his own desire for locomotion, not from instruction. You can't "teach" a child the difference between hot and cold, rough and smooth, loud and soft, sweet and sour, round and square. It's only through actively touching, feeling, listening, tasting, and observing that he learns to make those distinctions.
To be sure, you can give a child the names for these experiences. But that's like icing on the cake. Young children learn about themselves and the world through self-created experiences. You only have to watch a baby fascinated by moving her own hand, for instance, to appreciate how she learns about her body through play.
Or watch a toddler teach himself to climb by testing out anything he finds remotely climbable. Listen in as your preschooler engages in negotiations with friends over who plays teacher and who plays student, or who plays doctor and who patient, while she discovers who is a leader and who is a follower, who is outgoing and who is shy.
Children learn more easily and profoundly through play than they do through instruction. They're programmed for play; it is their birthright and it serves both as a fundamental way of learning about the world and self and also as a mode of discovery and invention. For parents, one of the most important challenges in today's hectic world is ensuring that children have the time and opportunities to engage in the kinds of play that foster their mental and physical growth and encourage their imagination and creativity.
For infants and young children, that means following a primary rule: "Less is more." Kids at this age are so good at creating their own learning experiences that there's no need to load them down with toys or technology. Consider the mother who confided in me recently that her 2-year-old daughter had spent more than an hour playing with toilet tissue. She was puzzled — and concerned. I assured her that her child was not thinking "toilet paper" during play. Rather, she had been engrossed in a magical material she could use to make robes, capes, bandages, and more.
It's important not to rush children through their play, especially during the first 4 or 5 years of life. Many children become so engrossed that they remain concentrated on the same activity for hours. To a child, each repetition is filled with fresh nuance. That's one reason your child loves to hear the same story over and over again — each time, he's taking in more details of the pictures and more subtleties of the spoken word. Young children "dawdle" for the same reason. The world is very new and fresh for them and they need time to explore and discover it.
Encouraging play and creativity in school-age children is a bit more complicated because of the demands of school and peers and the lure of technology. The primary rule for this age group is: "Let's get together."
In the past, kids routinely went outside, joined their neighborhood peers, and engaged in active play that cultivated their social skills, attitudes, and values. In self-initiated games such as hide-and-seek, children set their own boundaries and agreed on when and where to play. In so doing, they learned to compromise, to make or break rules, and to distinguish between rules of their own making and those dictated by "society."
For many young people, however, it is no longer possible, or desirable, to just "go outside." Aside from school recess, then, organized activities provide a good alternative to fill the bill. You can choose a sport, such as soccer; an artistic activity, like music or dance lessons; or a social group, like scouting. Some children need more, some less.
What is critical, however, is that these activities do not monopolize the time and opportunities your child has for spontaneous play. Making playdates can be helpful — if children are allowed to choose their own games and activities. It also makes sense for parents to alternate taking a small group to a playground where the opportunity for interaction — and physical exercise — brings its own rewards.
For all ages, it's important to try to factor in a healthy dose of individual playtime. This helps your child learn how to organize and plan his own activities and fill his free time.
And whether your child is alone or with a group, try to counter the ready availability of passive activities, such as watching TV or videos or playing computer games, by supplying active playthings. These leave room for the imagination and fantasy. Open-ended toys, such as blocks, Legos, arts and crafts materials like watercolors and clay, as well as books, board games, and playing cards, are a good bet. You can also help stimulate your child's natural intellectual growth through verbal interaction and physical activities that entertain, inform, and cause wonder. Try these:
- Bowl into a bag. Your toddler will learn motor control and spatial distances with two simple tools: a large paper bag set on the floor on its side with the opening facing you and a small ball. Squat next to your toddler and roll the ball into the bag. Retrieve the ball and let her take over.
- Let's go fishing. What's the difference between a solid and a porous substance? Fill a bowl or deep pan with water, and float some plastic bathtub toys on the water; sooner or later, your toddler will find out. Give her a kitchen strainer and let her fish for the toys.
- Answer with a purpose. As your child begins to ask questions, remember she believes everything on Earth is here for a purpose. So when she asks, "Why does the sun shine?" instead of a technical explanation, give her a simple response: "To make the flowers grow and keep us warm." You'll help spark her sense of fantasy.
- Tease her knowledge. Your child's rapidly developing language skills provide opportunities to enhance critical-thinking skills. Try changing words or concepts she knows. "Can we call the TV set a frumpet? Why or why not?" "In a world where salt tasted sweet, how would sugar taste?"
- Make 'em laugh. When parents challenge children with riddles, it reinforces listening and language skills — and builds family bonds through shared laughter. So dig up a good book of kids' jokes and riddles and share a few.
- Change the ending. After reading a book with your child, challenge him to come up with alternate endings. This gives him the idea that the story could have ended in any number of ways — that writing is open and flexible.
- Fill in the blanks. Have fun with "puzzles." Write a short sequence on a large piece of paper and challenge her to tell you what comes next. For the beginning reader, write A, B, C, _. For new number learners, 1, 2, 3, _. You can reverse sequences for older children.
- Share your experiences. By telling about your happiest memory or favorite teacher in school, you encourage your child to share his experiences as well. This gives him a richer sense of who he is and can help keep the communication lines open as he becomes older and grows more reluctant to share.
- Support their passions. If your child loves to dance, give her ballet slippers; if he loves soccer, kick the ball with him. When you show interest in their interests, it reinforces their sense of self.
- Play board games. Schools are filled with rules, and having board games on hand (you can play with your child or he can invite his peers to join him) can help reinforce the idea of how rules bring order.
- Go online together. Helping your child acquire computer literacy is one of the best ways to introduce him to the way schools are use technology more and more. If your child knows how to do a computer search, ask him to help you shop online for a needed item and then look over the reviews. This can also give him practice in finding and evaluating data.
There are a great many things we can, and should, teach a child. But there are many things that he can learn only through self-initiated play. A child has to learn to stand before he can walk. He must learn to walk before he can run. He may fall down a hundred times. You can hold his hand, but he really wants to master the skills on his own. To him, learning to stand, walk, and run is not work, it's a game — a game that not only serves as a means of learning skills but also as a way of opening up his world.