I’ve been wanting to write about the importance of play for some time, but every time I try to do it the enormity of the topic just overwhelms me. How on earth can you contain in a single post the huge significance of a playful childhood?! So instead I want to simply outline a few key points and illustrate with the various forms that playfulness takes in the early years.
Children are playful by nature:
From a very young age children interact with the world around them using all of their senses, taking cues from those who engage with them and imitating their actions, sounds and behaviours. We are our child’s most important and influential teachers and we are being watched, constantly. We are not all, however, instinctively good at knowing how to play with our babies and toddlers, especially if we haven’t had much contact with young people in our lives before becoming parents, but it’s easy to learn. Playing with our children is much more natural and much less scary than we realise. For example, almost everybody at some point just “knows” to play Peekaboo with a baby, and just think of all the skills that little game teaches a child! Communication, interaction, taking turns, cause and effect, humour, object permanence, eye contact, facial gestures, emotions and the list could go on! All from a simple, easy game that requires absolutely nothing but a willing, engaged parent.
Children develop their learning capabilities in the first 5 years:
I once went on a training course where they shared this information, and it was sobering to hear. A child’s brain develops more rapidly in the first 5 years of life than it ever does again, forming so many connections between the left and right side of the brain and essentially establishing its “ability” to learn new information in the future. A child left with no stimulation or enriching playful experiences is going to learn more poorly after the age of 5 than a child who has been played with, talked to, read to and stimulated on a regular basis. They need to interact with toys, materials, books, multi-sensory experiences and nature in order to develop real building blocks for learning. Too much screen time limits the sensory interaction, crushes creative, imaginative development and limits time spent communicating with others. Of course some TV and computer time is fine, as balance is so important, but some children’s activities tend to be top-heavy in this area.
How can we play with our children?
Playing with a young child takes on so many forms and we are familiar with them from our own childhood experiences. It doesn’t require anything extraordinary or expensive, and oftentimes it’s the natural or recycled resources that offer the most diverse and interesting play experiences. Playing with our children should be fun, relaxed, low-pressure and woven into every part of our ordinary daily routines. Here are a few examples of the types of play that we can engage with every day with our children.
Heuristic Play: This sounds high-brow but really all it means is playing with “objects.” This is the type of thing our grandparents figured out a long time ago without any text books or websites to tell them what to do! Give a child a new toy and within a few minutes all he wants to do is rip the paper and twizzle the ribbon between his fingers. Try and set him up with a game in the living room and he follows you to the kitchen and happily pulls out all of the pots and pans, stacking and banging them together and making a wonderful mess! This all makes perfect sense because only by testing and exploring these real life objects can young children work out how to use them in life! It’s also a wonderful release for us as parents, because we don’t have to constantly fork out for the next expensive toy all of the time! (In fact, we’ll probably be doing them a favour if we don’t.)
Sensory/ Messy Play:
This is by FAR the most important way that young children learn as it’s all about the senses at this stage of development. Indeed it’s mainly through taste and touch that they are discovering and making sense of the world in the first 3 years of life. And yet we often resist these activities because of the mess that it involves (and I totally understand this feeling!) However, you can always do these things in the garden, the bath, on the kitchen floor or in a deep, plastic tray to contain things a little bit. Your child will thank you for ever for giving them some of these experiences in early life!
I’m a firm believer that a child needs to be allowed to get messy and that it really won’t harm them to do so! Too much anxiety about getting messy and eventually they won’t even want to do painting and glueing as they will be afraid of it. What a shame! (I’m not talking about children who have a genuine sensory problem here, of course.)
Imaginary and Role Play:
This develops younger than we realise as it’s all about imitation. Baby watches us cooking three times a day and soon enough baby wants to stir in a play saucepan and cook at a toy oven! There are some wonderful resources on the market for role play and imaginative play, such as toy cookers, dolls and prams, shops, market stalls, tool kits, dolls houses and fire stations. You can also set up role play scenes for no money at all using a cardboard box to represent a car/ house/ shop/ space ship/ police station/ boat etc. The less pre-described toys and the greater the imaginative resources the child will have to draw on.
Small World Play:
This is another form of imaginary play and dolls houses, police stations, fire stations, hospitals etc would all fit into this category too. Small world is exactly what it sounds like- a miniature play scene with figures, objects, scenery and a sensory element to enrich play and stimulate imaginative, creative and language development. Children as young as 2 and a half can begin telling their own stories through scenes like these.
These sorts of scenes can be created by older children all by themselves and are totally absorbing for them to work on as a project.
There is some powerful research that suggests the most important and special memories from our childhoods usually take place outside. When I think back to what mine are, this is definitely true for me. It was the summers spent playing outdoors with my brothers in Italy, camping under sheet tents over the washing line, tramping through grassy fields on adventures, making mud pies in the garden and rock-pooling at the beach. Not a lot of the “best bits” happened inside. And, funnily enough, I don’t remember being cold out there. We don’t all have gardens but we do all live near at least a park or playground, if not a short distance from the countryside or seaside.
Running through a giant muddy puddle at the park! Oftentimes it’s just about getting the right all-weather gear for them to wear, and then wrapping up warmly ourselves! (a flask of coffee never hurts either
This covers art, craft, music making and dramatic play. These are some of the easiest activities to set up as there are so many great resources out there to buy for young children and a plethora of ideas to follow on the internet!
Reading books, story telling and puppet play:
These are so vital for a child’s development of language and literacy skills, not to mention just how much information about the world is picked up through every story or information book that is shared. Children should be surrounded by age appropriate books and also read to from slightly “older” books too to offer a rich and stimulating range of vocabulary, concepts and ideas. Rhyming books and picture books are fundamental staples for all under 5s. Ideally, books should be in most rooms of the house and in easy to access, low level boxes or baskets.