SingaporeMotherhood | Parenting

December 2014

The Importance of Play in Early Childhood

“I want to play. I want to play…” Frank pleaded, but his mother refused as she wanted her four-year-old to go for his Chinese enrichment class.

Is play important? Should I let my child play or go for classes? In a results-oriented society like ours, it is unsurprising that some parents find themselves facing this dilemma – even when their children are under five years old.

There’s no need to wonder. Play is good for your child. Children need time to play their own way, unstructured, unguided, and unsupervised.

Overscheduling of structured activities does not provide ample opportunities for young children to learn and develop at their own pace. As such, these children do not have the opportunities to explore about themselves, interact with others, and interpret their own understanding of their world.

The Need for Play

Through the years, renowned theorists have explored the influence of play on children’s development. Swiss developmental psychologist and philosopher Jean Piaget (1953) described play as a way for children to create a symbolic representation of their own mental interpretation of the world.

American philosopher, sociologist, and psychologist George Herbert Mead (1934) believed in play as the major vehicle for young children to learn to differentiate their own perspectives from those of others in their social worlds.

There’s also Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1920), who examined how development and learning takes place through social interactions and the acquisition of social rules, problem-solving skills through play. Erik Erikson (1939), a German-born American developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst, discovered that play was an important outlet for children to resolve tensions and discover strong identity.

Brain Wiring

Dr. Sergio Pellis, a Behavioral Neuroscience professor and researcher at the University of Lethbridge in Canada since 1990, noted in an August 2014 article that play changes neurons’ connections, and helps to wire the brain’s control centre.

In the same article, Dr. Jaak Panksepp, who is currently the professor for Integrative Physiology and Neuroscience at The Washington State University, said he believes that play helps to build pro-social brains which enable people to interact.

For Survival

Children have a basic need to play – just like eating and sleeping. Sometimes, play can help them to cope with difficulties that they are facing either at school or home.

Children go through different experiences depending on their economic and cultural backgrounds. Play can transcend this disparity, and enable them to relate to each other at the same level. Play can also allow children to interact in an honest atmosphere. Free play is critical as it helps children to build fundamental skills essential for independence.

How does Play Advance Childhood Development?

Simulation Enables Learning

Play creates scenarios which enable children to interact, establish rules, and face challenges. Play also provides opportunities for children to learn about themselves, and discover their interests, skills and talents. Often, children learn to be more confident of themselves, make resolutions, and overcome their handicaps during play.

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Emotional Development

Dramatic play provides opportunities for children to express their emotions through sad, happy, or hilarious enactments. Children learn to understand these sentiments, and learn that they are able to adjust those emotions after the play. These children appreciate, and learn to manage emotional situations such as loss though role playing. Through such play, children get opportunities to regulate and manage their emotions. Such achievement is a major milestone in the development of intrapersonal intelligence and emotional competence.

Play and Language Development

Play can move children towards early literacy development. Children get opportunities to explore sounds, word arrangements, and invent their own unique forms of language as they interact. Also, dramatic or role play motivates children to develop narrative or stories. Children’s abilities to negotiate imaginative situations (such as in house or superhero play), role play, and sequence events to tell stories form the foundation of their literacy learning and development.

Play and Science, Logic, and Mathematical Thinking

Another association between play and development is the acquisition of science and logical-mathematical ability. Simple activities such as block building, cycling, playground and water play allow children to be exposed to cause-effect and spatial relationships, gravity, and other physics concepts in easy-to-understand manner.

When children imitate what goes on in the hospital environment, they begin to understand the purpose and use of scientific instruments. Play also provides opportunities for children to construct meaningful classification, schemes, patterns and relationships to interpret their environments.

Play and problem solving

Play provides children with the opportunities to search for options and solutions to resolve problems. Through play, children get opportunities to work out their conflicts. They learn to take turns, develop patience, and consider the perspectives of others. Such empathy can contribute towards problem solving situations as well.

The Power of Play

Indeed, play has power and impact. As a parent, you may not understand why children spend substantial time playing at day cares, preschools, and kindergartens. You may not realise the presence of those social dynamics that are taking place while your children are learning to interact or work with their peers.

Play provides an important avenue for children to navigate through the world that they know. Play is essential for critical growth as established by those major childhood developmental theorists. Children can move through major developmental milestones while learning, exploring and discovering about themselves, and their environment.

Fundamentally, play stimulates neurons in the brain and accelerates children’s emotional and language development, science and logical-mathematical thinking which can indicate school readiness. Finally, play can help children learn to find solutions to solve existing conflicts, and cope with difficulties in their lives.

In essence, play should be the cornerstone of all learning interaction for children. Today, the emerging play-based curriculum, which extends directly from the children’s interests, can be effective in terms of providing opportunities to broaden, and enhance learning in many ways.

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The Importance of Play in Early Childhood