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Home > Resources > Articles > All in a Day's Play -- The Importance of Play in Early Childhood Education

All in a Day's Play -- The Importance of Play in Early Childhood Education

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Watch a young child at play. Sure he's having fun, but take a closer look and you'll find there's more to the picture than meets the eye. Through play, children develop the foundations they'll need to succeed in life, from problem solving and social skills to basic literacy, math and science. "Playing with blocks is how young children learn about shapes and measurements," says Alan Simpson, Communications Director for the National Association for the Education of Young Children. "Playing with other children is an important part of social and emotional development and learning to negotiate and to share. Playing in a sand table or playing in the sand at the beach, children learn about math and balance and structure. There are so many concepts that young children are just beginning to grasp, they're learning how to explore, and play is such an integral part of that."

Problem Solving and Social Development
Problem solving skills are essential for social and academic success, and children develop most of their early problem solving abilities through play. Toys like jack-in-the-boxes and busy boxes are naturals for teaching about cause-and-effect relationships. More "open-ended" objects like empty boxes, bowls, and stacking cups provide opportunities for young children to explore size and volume and to manipulate objects in different ways. Children at play make predictions, such as whether or not one object will fit inside another, then they test those predictions as they learn to make sense of the world.

You can encourage problem solving activities using simple, everyday objects. Take some clear plastic containers with lids, for example, fill them with brightly colored objects, then let your child observe the action inside. Help your child create ramps using blocks or other materials, then give him a variety of objects to roll. Ask him which objects he thinks will roll faster, then help him find out. He'll become more accurate with his predictions as he discovers the basic laws of gravity and physics.

Problem solving is also crucial for healthy social development, and children can only learn positive social skills by playing with others. Parents can help by offering little ones tools to navigate emotionally-charged areas like sharing and hurt feelings, then stepping back and allowing them to resolve issues on their own. You might need to step in once in a while to avoid physical violence, but as children enter the toddler and preschool years, you'll help most by giving them space to resolve conflicts among themselves.

Language
Play is essential when it comes to language learning, too. Talking with your children, singing with your children, and playing games involving rhyming words and silly sounds all lead to a love of language and a clear understanding of what language is. While you're probably eager for your child to learn to read, experts agree that fostering strong oral language skills and literacy awareness in the early years is more important than teaching letter sounds and word recognition. Songs, poems, stories, and age-appropriate videos all help foster your child's language development, but the best way to teach your child about language is simply by engaging her in meaningful conversations.

Pretend play also helps develop essential reading skills. "Teaching reading is about unlocking symbolic language," says Sara Davis, Assistant Professor of Early Childhood Education at Oregon's Portland State University. "In play, children are using symbolic language. When they pretend that a block cylinder is a bottle of soda and they're going to drink from it, that's a symbol of something, and once children understand symbols, then they can start to understand that letters stand for a word and that a printed word stands for something they understand." Giving your child rich and varied experiences with verbal language through talking, singing, and reading together is also important. The larger a child's vocabulary, the more words he'll be able to decipher correctly when the time comes.

And don't forget that books can be wonderful play objects, cultivating a love of reading and literacy awareness from infancy. Read to your children daily, but give them books to play with, too. Even babies can hold and mouth board books; before you know it they'll be opening the books and turning pages. "Children learn about books long before they can read them," says Simpson. "They learn that these fascinating combinations of pages involve stories and that the words inside them are symbols for things." Fill your house with engaging, age-appropriate books, whether new, used, or borrowed from the library. Encourage children to "read" to their dolls or stuffed animals. And let them see you read. There's no better teacher than a good role model. "I grew up reading," says Simpson, "because I watched Mom and Dad read."

Encourage your children to play with writing, too. Provide paper in a variety of colors and sizes as well as age-appropriate writing instruments (crayons, washable markers, chalk, and pencils for older children). Keep the supplies accessible and encourage your children to express themselves through art and writing. They can "write" a letter to Grandma or a grocery list before a trip to the store. Encourage them to draw pictures about books you read, videos you watch, and activities you enjoy together. Not only will they have fun, they'll develop creativity, confidence, communication skills, and fine motor skills.

Math and Science
Babies begin to learn math concepts far earlier than we might imagine, and much of that learning occurs through play. When children are exposed to a variety of interesting objects, they begin thinking about relationships like bigger and smaller, more and less, longer and shorter, heavier and lighter. You can encourage them to estimate how many objects are in a set then count the objects with them, or teach them basic measuring techniques through cooking, whether real or pretend.

Science--for young children and their parents--is all around. After all, science is not a predetermined set of facts: It's the process of observing the world, making predictions, testing outcomes, and drawing conclusions. Children at play are constantly honing these skills. You can encourage them further by asking open-ended questions like, "What do you think will happen?", "What else could you do with that?", and, "Is there another way to do that?" Allow your child to make predictions (don't tell him if he's incorrect), then ask him how he might test those predictions. Give your child freedom to explore nature in your backyard, at the park, or on a walk around the block. It might be difficult as a busy parent to stand idly by while your toddler watches a colony of ants or digs in a pile of gravel for several long minutes, but your patience will pay off for years to come.

Letting Little Ones Lead
"Another really important part of play that sometimes gets lost in the shuffle is that unstructured play is really where children learn to explore, learn to imagine, and learn to get along with other children," says Simpson, advising parents to let children take the lead when it comes to play. "You always want to supervise young children, but you really want to let them create their own games." Give children a lot of options when it comes to games and toys, agrees Davis, then allow them to make their own choices. One child might be drawn to puzzles while another prefers blocks. One child might spend hours devising elaborate scenarios involving stuffed animals while another sits quietly with his nose in a book. Try not to push children into playing with the toys you think are most appropriate. When given options, little ones are surprisingly adept at choosing the right toy for their developmental stage, their temperament, and their interests.

That's not to say you shouldn't play with your child. Where's the fun in that? But when you do join in your child's play, let him take the lead. Children develop healthy self-esteem when parents respect their imaginary play and allow them to be in charge for a change. If you ask open-ended questions and refrain from expressing judgment or offering your opinion, you'll likely learn even more than your child. You'll gain valuable insight into how he thinks, how he feels, and what interests him. And by entering his world on his terms, you'll nurture a strong parent-child bond that will last a lifetime.

These are just a few suggestions for great "learning" toys:

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All in a Day's Play -- The Importance of Play in Early Childhood Education