In a world where standards and grades are given top priority, the importance of play often falls by the wayside. Play is children's work and boosts learning in many ways.
Is there room for play in our children's' busy lives? Are children able to cram in play between homework, sports practice, chores and other obligations? Can children today tap into the creativity and imagination necessary for play? And, one final question. Does play matter?
To answer this last question is easy. Yes. Play matters for our children for various reasons, including:
- Trying out and practising new skills
- Learning about relationships with other people, including classmates, adults, community workers, family and friends
- Building language skills
- Encouraging imagination and creativity
- Working to understand how the world works
These are some of the many reasons play is important to children. And it's not just important to babies, toddlers, or preschoolers. Play is important to children well into grade school. But, despite the well-documented research on the importance of play, today's children are playing less and less. Playtime is crowded out by busy schedules, rigorous schoolwork and the lack of understanding about the important role play serves in a child's development. As parents and teachers, it is up to us to insure our children are able to engage in play activities on a daily basis.
What is play?
Play can take many forms. Dramatic role playing, when children play a role such as doctor, schoolteacher, mommy and daddy, or animals are some examples. Older kids play games such as hopscotch, jump rope, tag, or hide and seek. Using paints, clay, markers, and other art materials are play activities. Kids who explore stars, leaves, frogs and bugs, dirt and sand, mud, and rocks are also playing. The varieties of play are endless and children are natural players--as long as they are given the opportunity.
Losing the ability to play?
Have you ever seen a child who didn't know how to play? For many, that is an absurd question. What child doesn't know how to play? But the idea is not as crazy as it sounds. Many parents and teachers report children who have no ideas of their own or don't know what to do if left alone to play. Children need time and guidance to learn to play and develop their imaginations. This doesn't mean adults should direct the play. This just means that as adults, we need to provide the time and the materials, and offer guidance if children need it. Children often don't need fancy or expensive toys, and truthfully, will often lose interest in or break high-priced toys that don't allow children to interact with them. Simple, timeless toys are often best: blocks, cardboard boxes, bought or homemade musical toys, bought or homemade clay or Play-doh, and puzzles or games.
How can we help children play?
Now that we know how important play is for children's bodies, intellect and imagination, how can we encourage our children to play more often? The answer lies in recognizing that opportunities for play can arise at any time and in any place.
Here are some things adults can do to encourage play:
- Provide children with lots of materials, both commercial and homemade. Toys are great, but don't overlook boxes, tubes, kitchen tools, feathers, various papers, adult objects such as calculators, old phones, old stereo equipment, etc. It does have to be interesting and appealing, but it doesn't have to be expensive.
- Allow children time to play. Make sure kids aren't over-scheduled and exhausted. Tired children are cranky, sluggish, and easily frustrated...not the best frame of mind for creative endeavors.
- Allow children to be in charge of playtime. It is not effective playtime if an adult plans the activity, the structure and the outcome. Children need to be allowed the freedom to form ideas, practice skills and use materials at their own pace. Adults can and should play with children. Just make sure you are following the child's directives and ideas and not the other way around.
Adding play to a busy child's schedule is a good move for both the child's brain and well-being. Children who play are not wasting time, they are practicing skills that will be used for many years to come.