What is one of the most stressful periods for parents of young children? School selection, isn’t it? We want to give our children a good start in life. For almost all of us, this means giving our children a good education during the foundational years. So, what do we do? We research and identify the best schools that meet our financial capacity—even if it is for toddlers’ playschool. And then starts the drill! “Write your name, write the letters, practice these lines…What shape is this? What colour is that?” All this is done to prepare the child for the interview. Not that it stops once the child is admitted to the school of choice. Now starts the round of “Which enrichment class should my child go to?” and so on.
What if I told you that engaging in play is the developmentally appropriate path that leads children to formal learning? Sure, when we discuss the importance of play, we talk about the connection between play and the development of motor skills. But did you know that play supports cognitive, emotional, and executive function skills?
What is play?
Play is any enjoyable activity. It can be free play, like making paper boats in the rain, or structured like a game of chess. It is fun and creative and does not have to meet any set goals.
I’ve brought up the importance of play in other podcasts too. Why is it such a big deal? Are you aware that the United Nations has declared the right to play as a fundamental right of every child? Those in the field of education and child development do point out the importance of play, but our society has undergone a change in how we see play. Many factors have contributed to this change.
- Traditional joint family structures with children of different ages and sometimes even generations provided natural opportunities for them to play through the day. Extended family members were available to watch the children after school or to go to the park or playground. Nuclear families mean limited or no playmates in the home. When both parents work, classes after school are a safe place for these children.
- A good education allows for upward mobility in our country. As a result, parents across the socio-economic spectrum want their children to start formal learning at a very young age. Our early childhood education centres focus more on direct instruction of reading, writing, and maths. That takes away time from young children’s play.
- Rapid urbanization without sufficient planning has led to the loss of parks and playgrounds. Parents are understandably concerned about their children playing on the roads and want them to stay indoors.
- The academic workload in our school system has increased tremendously in the past few decades. The expectations are uniformly high for all children, and our teachers cannot individualize due to time constraints, limited resources, and insufficient skills. As a result, many kids struggle with their schoolwork. Parents see no other option but to send their children to tutoring classes, sometimes for a couple of hours after school. This leaves children with very little time to play.
- Parents feel the social pressure to make their children overachieving all-rounders. That means the children are overscheduled with enrichment classes, which again limits their play opportunities.
- In India, there is intense competition for limited seats in higher educational institutions. That leaves parents with no alternative but to prepare their children for medical and engineering seats from the end of primary school. Children’s career decisions are made very young, and every learning opportunity is geared towards this end. Invariably, children’s playtime is seen as a waste of time because they don’t add to the pile of awards and certificates needed for college admissions.
- Even before the pandemic hit, children were sedentary, watching TV or on the internet. But the last three years have increased screen time with very limited stimulation through play.
Why is play important?
Play is essential in all areas of a child’s growth. Everything they learn about the world around them is through play. Play looks different at different ages. When a baby explores a ball by putting it into the mouth, that is play. The toddler is ready to throw the ball and expects you to catch it. A five-year-old can hit the ball with a cricket bat, while an older child may want to play cricket with other children by following the game’s rules. The motor skills, coordination, and cognitive and social skills needed for play increase with age. Play helps children reach their milestones.
Play develops emotional and social skills. Children build loving relationships through their interactions with parents and other adults around them through play. Adults engaging with children in their play lay the foundation for emotional bonding and trust. Playing with their peers teaches children essential self-regulation skills as they grow older. They learn to work in a group, take turns, respect each others’ boundaries, negotiate, problem-solve when conflicts arise, and advocate for themselves. Play also teaches children how to manage their emotions. As children engage in pretend play, they learn to see others’ perspectives and develop empathy.
Play encourages an inquiring mind. It provides natural opportunities for children to explore and manipulate different materials and discover independently. Unstructured play, in particular, promotes creativity as children try to identify how and what they want to play. They decide on the rules without adults’ directing them. When children learn to make decisions, they show originality and flexibility in their thinking because they have practiced trying out new ideas and discarding those that don’t work.
Play is essential for brain development. When babies explore their environment, they make many new connections in the brain. As they continue to play, these connections are reinforced. Research shows that in animals, play strengthens and enlarges the prefrontal region of the brain, which is the seat of executive function control. This part of the brain influences how a child attends, retains information, and plans. These are the skills that eventually shape how a child learns academic material.
Play enhances literacy skills. It is an excellent medium for children to develop their listening, speaking, reading, and writing skills. Whether the child imitates the parent and makes sounds, flips the pages of a board book, dances to a rhyme, listens to a story, and then enacts it with friends, these activities lay the foundations for emergent literacy skills. When the child scribbles on a paper to write a message for the grandparent or draws shapes to make a birthday card, these activities reinforce the connection between sounds in the spoken word and the printed letters. Through play, children learn the importance of sequence and structure in stories and non-fiction.
Play is essential for physical development and well-being. As children crawl, tumble, run and climb, they strengthen their muscles and improve their coordination and balance. Their gross motor and fine motor skills develop, enabling them to reach their milestones. In older children, active physical play also leads to better fitness and improved self-esteem. As with adults, movement helps children manage stress and anxiety, leading to better mental well-being.
What can you do to encourage your child’s play?
- Set aside a time for unstructured play every day. Children have a lifetime of formal learning waiting for them. Tutoring classes and academic camps can wait. This is the time for play.
- Take your child to a place conducive to active physical play, whether an outdoor playground or a swimming pool. Do not be afraid to let them swing, hop, climb and be active.
- Help your child build friendships to have opportunities for social interactions during play.
- Take your child on exciting trips. Encourage them to incorporate ideas from their trips into their play.
- Don’t rush to tell a child how to use an object or toy. Whether they use the wool yarn to create a lion’s tail or make a necklace, let them plan it out independently.
Focusing so much on academic skills at a young age creates stumbling blocks for our children’s future educational prospects.
Are we ready to let our children play?