Some people think of play as the opposite of work. They think of it with goofing off, being lazy, lack of achievement, or, at best, recreation. "Stop playing and get to work!" Yet, as many of you probably know, it is through play that we do much of our learning. We learn best when we are having fun. Play, more than any other activity, fuels healthy development of children — and the continued healthy development of adults.
Play takes many forms, but the heart of all play is pleasure. If it isn't fun, it isn't play. We play from birth on — we play using our bodies (building with blocks) and our minds (fantasy play). We use words to play (jokes, wit, humor) and we use props (blocks, toys, games). While the exact nature of play evolves, becoming more complex as we grow, play at all ages brings pleasure.
What Young Children Know
Play enhances every domain of a child's development. Gross-motor skills, such as walking, kicking, or skipping, can be strengthened when a toddler pushes a toy grocery cart or an older child jumps rope. When a young child kicks a ball across the room, she is practicing coordination by balancing on one foot to kick with the other.
Fine-motor and manipulation skills are developed while a child builds and colors a sign for a backyard tree house. When throwing and catching a ball, a child practices hand-eye coordination and the ability to grasp.
Children practice and develop language skills during play. A child's play with words, including singsong games and rhymes that accompany games of tag, can help him master semantics, practice spontaneous rhyming, and foster word play.
The child's cognitive capacity is enhanced in games by trial and error, problem solving, and practice discriminating between relevant and irrelevant information. Play requires the child to make choices and direct activities and often involves strategy, or planning, to reach a goal.
Interpersonal/social skills, ranging from communication to cooperation, develop in play. Children learn about teamwork when they huddle together and decide who plays each position in a pick-up soccer game. The child gains an understanding about those around him and may become more empathic and less egocentric. When playing with peers, children learn a system of social rules, including ways to control themselves and tolerate their frustrations in a social setting.
The Value of Boredom
Ironically, it is a lack of external stimulation and solitude that facilitates creative play. Often, a child will initially perceive this as "boredom." The child seeks structure and organization from parents or teachers — "I'm bored. I have nothing to do." And all too often we jump in too soon and make the mistake of creating the child's activities for him. We need to learn to let children become bored, because it is through this transient period of under-stimulation that their internal world can come alive. This process is facilitated by solitude — the opportunity to be alone and without too many external stimuli.
When a child cannot watch television, play video games, and is not participating in a scheduled "externally focused" activity, she will become more internally focused. Her imagination and creativity takes over. She will find and create "toys" from what is available — sticks become dolls, dolls become royalty, and these members of "royalty" become actors in the child's play — rocks become blocks, blocks become walls, and walls create castles.
The primary inhibitor of play for American children is television. Watching television is a passive, noncreative time. On average, our children watch 28 hours of television each week — all stealing time from social interactions, abstract thinking, creativity, and play. The use of this passive medium in the classroom should be very limited. An hour of "educational" television does not have the same power as an hour of creative play.
The second major inhibitors of play are adults. Our children are overtired and overscheduled. We wake them before the sun rises and often keep them scheduled in school, after-school programs and lessons, and sports well into the night. They have little time to themselves, and too few opportunities for nonstructured play.
One of the most important forms of play is playing with ideas. Abstract thinking is play. When a child fantasizes, he is playing. By taking images, ideas, and concepts from inside their own minds and re-organizing, sorting, and re-connecting in new ways, children create. They create play worlds, hopes, desires, and wishes. They imagine being a ball player, a dancer, a superhero, a teacher. In order to facilitate this, children need more moments of quiet. Children need more solitude. Children need less external, electronic, and structured adult-world stimulation.
This article originally appeared in Early Childhood Today magazine.