The importance of play

Play is fun. It is mostly recognised as a recreational activity for children – which is partly true but it is so much more than just a fun thing that children do.

Play as a recreational activity is mostly free-play, but play can be structured and the child can be guided and directed to reach a specific goal e.g. learning specific skills and knowledge. There are different ways in which the same skill can be learned, either during free play or structured play in the classroom.

On this note, I want to introduce you to the 3 P’s of play.

1. Pleasure: it happens spontaneously; it takes place on the child’s level and is a tool for communication for children. It is their language of communication.

2. Practice: it provides children with the opportunity to repeatedly practice new skills in a safe and understandable environment. Children practice problem solving skills by building blocks, to handle social conflict by playing with puppets and responsibility by realising that every action has an effect – if they bump into the block tower; it will break into pieces on the floor. In fact, we can then also say that play is research. Children make connections between their actions and the reaction e.g. if they bring a magnet close to a steel surface it will stick. This can also be called accidental learning.

3. Prepare: that which children learn through play in their safe environment of the playroom, home or classroom, prepare them to deal with real life situations. When social interaction is practiced in the playroom using hand puppets, the child will gain the confidence to later explore these interactions on the playground. Those skills obtained through play prepare children for their future.

The challenges that we face in 21st century play includes the following:

  • Technology: It easily becomes a babysitter with some advantages and many disadvantages. Technology does not provide multi-sensory play activities; it limits social interaction, is addictive and suppresses the sleep hormone, to name only a few.
  • Limited space for free play: We are often limited to small gardens and unsafe environments which limit children’s opportunity to play freely, climb trees, ride bicycles and run and kick balls in open spaces.
  • Too many toys: Often children have an unlimited amount of toys and they end up playing with none of them. Creating new toys and games from household items promotes so much more creativity and problem solving skills.
  • Distracted parenting: Parents are busy. We forget to observe, listen and take part. We sometimes get disconnected from our children. One thing children need more than toys are being connected with their parents.

We don’t have to be experts on any form of play. We can merely step back and observe how the children play. We can listen to what they say, both verbally and non-verbally through their play. Through observation and listening we will get to know the children, their processes, learning styles and problem solving strategies.

There is no right and wrong in play – take part and explore the playfield with the children. By providing sensory activities, you and the children have the opportunity to be in contact with the environment up close. Try new things, make mistakes, get up and try again.

As play involves all areas of development – physically, mentally, cognitively, emotionally and socially – it is high in value to the developing and learning child. Remember that childhood is a process; play is a process; not a destination.

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