Importance of early childhood play

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I have been working with children over 25 year -through dance, movement, pre & primary school teaching, and teaching art, now running mother and toddler workshops and Little Acorns play school. My long term experience led me to develop a keen interest in early childhood development and play therapy. Lately I keep coming across the issue of free/intuitive play vs. cognitive directed learning for young children. The importance of play is not always fully understood and often mistreated as just ‘nothing’ or ‘child’s play’. It is very important to remember that children learn through play. Play is the means through which they acquire most of their knowledge about the world and themselves. Play is children’s natural response to life, it is how they get to test things out and make sense of their experiences. It helps children explore and find their way around their environment. Through play, children can learn about their strengths and abilities, as well as their limitations. They are able to learn how to deal with others which leads to solving problems, practicing tasks, expression of emotions, and using their body to explore and develop physical abilities. Play provides the only means for children to meet all aspects of development, such as: Physical: Motor control, muscle tone, body and space awareness, balance and exploration. Sitting in front of the TV Or computer for long time can lead to low muscle tone and bad posture. Children with low muscle tone struggle to sit still and focus for longer periods at school (often mistaken to ADD problems). Imaginative/Intellectual: Imaginative play is the most important part for cognitive learning. Through assimilation and symbolic thoughts, children acquire information and learn concepts such equivalence, objects manipulation, association, construction and distraction and more – all which are concepts we need in later learning and for the understanding of abstracts ideas. Language: This is closely linked to intellectual development. Communicating verbally to express their thoughts and feelings are skills that get mostly strengthen through interacting with others in play. Emotional: Play provides the medium for expression and relief of feelings (both positive and negative) without the pressure to conform to adults standards. While playing children are in ‘command’, they gain satisfaction through mastery over their environment. In group play children also need to consider and accommodate others and have to, at times, work through feelings of frustration, develop compassion and learn to negotiate and sometimes delay their own need for gratification. Social: While playing in groups (two or more), children build relationships, get involved in physical, emotional, imaginative play as well as use language to engage with others. They need to listen, communicate and process the group dynamic to find their place within it. This is the time that they learn to ‘step out’ and away from their parental protection and tries negotiating their way with others. Children need to be provided with the correct age appropriate environment in order for early childhood play to be effective and for them to learn from each other. Social play also teaches emotional intelligence (EQ) Social skills need to be developed and introduced according to age appropriate- for example; we can not expect a 2 year old to understand the need to step a side for the general benefit of the group, something that is more appropriate at 8 year old. Social play can help build the child’s confidence provided it is done gradually. It is important to consider the children age and their sense of self which if referred to as their ego development. The younger the child, the less he/she able to deal with a large group as his/her own sense of self is not fully develop and still rely of ‘parental’ figure to ‘carry’ it for them. As the child grows older and becomes emotionally able to handle the ‘stress’ that the group brings, the more able he/she is to start separating from the ‘parent’ (this can be any substitute adult who at the time cares for the child- Nanny, teacher etc) and have a stronger, more formed sense of self. Just like strengthening a muscle by lifting first 1kg and gradually as the muscle gets stronger building it up to a heavier weight, so is the child’s ability to start separating and to socialize in larger groups. It is important to remember that socializing needs to be done in incremental steps, often rushing the process and pushing the child to socialize in an environment that he/she is not emotionally ready for can lead to damage such as: anxiety, reluctance to join in with others, anti-social skills, performance anxiety and low self esteem. Play is not only a child response to life but it is the child’s life! It is a vital part of growing up. When exposing the child to social interaction educators (caregivers), need to always consider the child’s emotional age- which is not necessary always the same as the child’s physical age- assessing it according to E.Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development (8 stages from birth to adulthood) in which the center element is the development of Ego Identity- the conscious sense of self. Each stage presents a “conflict” that serves as a turning point for potential personal growth or potential for failure depending how well supported was the individual during each stage. We aim to help the child to ‘master’ each stage so that he/she can move forward. By gradually exposing children to bigger social circles (from family to friends to small group away from parents then to larger groups with higher social demands) we help the strengthen their “emotional muscles” to master social skills and express themselves freely which helps create a well rounded self excepting human being. We need to provide children with opportunities for different age appropriate social play: such as unoccupied play, solitary play, parallel play, associative play and organized cooperative play. In preschool the teacher’s role in fostering play is very important. The teacher must be able to select appropriate activities which will provide the right amount of interest and challenge that will lead to expand discovery and growth. It is my opinion that it is more important to allow our children to grow with emotional security and the freedom to be children than to focus solely on intellectual and cognitive input in early childhood. A happy relaxed child will be able to learn better and have a better social life. There is no price for happiness and it is our responsibility as caregivers to do our best to teach the child self-acceptance- through being accepted more the expected (to perform).

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