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The Power of Play
Some of us may have heard the statement “play is the work of children”. As grown ups it can be easy to forget that children use play as a means to learn, communicate and experiment with new ideas, as well as explore their feelings. Interactive play is also a doorway into the realm of social skills. Sharing, turn taking, and even the intricacies of social niceties are broken down and learned in their simplest forms. Play is a powerful example of experiential learning.
There are two main forms of play that most every style of play can be categorized under.
Organized Play is play that has a structure, like a game with rules, or an activity that requires a certain configuration like a puzzle. These are activities that follow rules or specific formats.
Free Play is play that has more flow to it. There is not a set way a task needs to be done. Toys or objects can be used in whatever way children feel moved to use them.
Both forms of play are a rich source of learning for children.
Some examples of cognitive growth/learning can be found in the way children discover spatial awareness, matching, awareness of sizes and shapes and colors and even numbers. When children play with different sized objects and/or stacking toys, they discover the difference between big and little, that small can fit inside big but not the other way around.
Play also increases physical development and both fine and gross motor skills. Running, riding a tricycle and climbing all involve large muscle groups and boost development of strength and coordination. Drawing, painting, gluing, and a myriad of other activities promote fine motor skills and hand eye coordination.
Social/Emotional growth is found in most avenues of play. Make believe, story telling, singing, and peer interaction all offer pathways for development. When a child creates a story to act out they are experimenting with themes they have either been witness to or are curious about. When they interact with their peers they are learning about cooperation and social expectations.
You do not need the latest technology or fancy toy to promote play in your child. Children are spontaneous and creative. In their hands a pile of rocks and sticks can become roadways and buildings. A squiggly line on a piece of paper becomes a snake. A sheet and a couple chairs can become a castle.
Play can look different in different children. Children with special needs may use toys in a different way or play in a way that is difficult for adults (and sometimes other children) to understand. This does not mean that they are playing “wrong” or not learning from their experience. It does mean that in order to interact and encourage them we may have to take a different perspective.
Tips for playing with children:
1. Get curious about what they are doing. For example if you have a child that likes to line things up, become a detective and explore what this experience is. Get down on the floor and try the activity too (this goes for any activity). Do this with an open mind. Maybe it won’t make sense at first. Maybe it never will, but what better way to interact with your little one than to get down to their level and try to see things their way.
2. Encourage play. Create space for free play and organized play time in your family’s schedule. Have different types of activities available for your child, things like, blocks, play dough, art supplies, and toy cars, offer limitless creativity. For organized play time you can bake or make play dough together, play a game (bounce a ball back and forth or try out Simon Says, making sure to take turns being Simon)
3. Remember that it is the process of play that is important not the end result (this is especially important in relationship to art projects). You may find children trying to change rules during play. Ask questions about this and share your own feelings. Ex: “When I don’t get a turn I feel sad and don’t want to play anymore”. A child will learn more from this than from being told they are “doing it wrong”
4. Praise children for the creativity as well as for the behaviors you want to see repeated! Be specific in your praise. Ex: “I love how you colored that flower 5 different colors. It looks really beautiful!” or “You just did such a great job sharing with Johnny. I am so proud of you!”. This will foster positive self esteem and a feeling of competence.
5. Have FUN! As adults we often forget how good play can feel. Spend time playing with your child and you might just find yourself laughing more, relaxing more and most importantly connecting with your child more
Emily Morrison is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Sonoma County California. She has a private practice in downtown Santa Rosa.