Having worked in the field of Early Intervention for over 15 years, there is a trend that is becoming more pronounced with each passing year as our lives become more deeply entrenched with technology at every level. The important role of simple open-ended play in children’s lives is diminishing and it is becoming replaced by structured and planned activities or screen time. Children are being asked to put aside play at an earlier point in their lives as the kindergarten curriculum has become focused on structured teaching. And yet, research suggests that play is a biological necessity and that the forces which drive play lying deep in the ancient survival centers of the brain.
For children with developmental differences, parents tend to focus on promoting cognitive, language, and social skills before focusing on play skills. For typical children, parents feel a pressure to keep children entertained, busy, or “learning.” In both situations, there is inadequate appreciation for the depth and breadth of learning that occurs when children are just provided a safe environment in which they can play without interruptions or instructions.
What is it about play that makes it an invaluable part of a child’s life? It is truly the work of childhood to engage in play. At one level, there is no greater goal than just the value of allowing children to do what they do best, just to be in the moment and fully immersed in their self-directed goals. But play is also essential to the physical, social, and emotional well-being of children. Within the safety of their own space, children recreate and gain mastery over their daily experiences. They try on different roles, express their views and feelings, conquer their fears, problem-solve, negotiate, and create. Play actually changes the neurons at the front of our brain. As Jaak Panksep of Washington State University describes it, “the function of play is to build pro-social brains, social brains that know how to interact with others in positive ways.”
When children play, they use materials at their disposal to symbolize imagined or real life events. This use of symbols is an important aspect of cognitive development and helps to set the foundation for reading and math skills. Putting together a play narrative is the beginnings of formulating a story and therefore key for reading and comprehension skills. Play that involves puzzles and building helps to support visual-spatial and logical thinking skills.
Play with peers or siblings provides children with the opportunity to develop social skills. They must learn to consider the feelings and perspectives of others, to cooperate, negotiate, problem-solve, and resolve conflicts. Within the conflicts that occur during play, children develop their capacity for recognizing, verbalizing, and managing their emotions. They learn how to respond to the emotions and actions of others with respect to their own feelings.
A major aspect of play is also the level of physical activity involved. Children need to discharge their emotions and stress hormones in a physical manner, making it less likely that they will have tantrums. The physical nature of play helps to promote the development of gross motor skills, muscle strength, and balance. Furthermore, physical activity has also been shown to change the brain. According to Harvard Medical School psychiatrist John Ratey, exercise increases the level of brain chemicals called growth factors, which help make new brain cells and establish new connections between brain cells to help us learn.
One of the main reasons parents struggle with creating open ended play time for their children is that they feel this requires their time and active involvement, something which understandably parents have in short supply. While there is definitely a need and for special time set aside for parents and children to connect through one-on-one interactions each day, playing with your child does not have to be something you are responsible to engage in for prolonged periods of time each day. If you are interested in learning more about how to foster your children’s ability to engage in self-directed play, I highly encourage you to check out janetlansbury.com and the following post as a good starting place: http://www.janetlansbury.com/2015/04/help-my-toddler-cant-play-without-me/
If you have a child with special needs, support the development of play skills is just as essential as promoting language, cognition, self-help and motor skills. Furthermore, play is a natural vehicle for teaching across all domains of development. Teaching skills to children through play capitalizes on the natural positive emotions that are present to fuel meaningful learning. Make sure you have a team in place that recognizes the value of play as a foundation for learning.