One sunny summer day, I looked out the window to see my son and a friend spinning and laughing, playing at something known only to the two of them, kids learning through play by time, expectations, or adult rules. Never before had I seen such pure expressions of joy. Play may be as old as the existence of humankind.
Playthings have been discovered in the artifacts of ancient civilizations and many believe that the earliest chess pieces date back to 6,000 B. What is now undeniably clear in the 21st century is that play is essential, vital, critical, and fundamental to a child’s social, emotional, physical, and intellectual development. Without adequate, healthy play, children run the risk of entering school unprepared, growing into teens and adults without needed skills, and failing to meet their potential. Through joyful, healthy play, children begin a love of learning and prepare for life itself. Play is recreation, amusement, or fun. Play is not just about doing, it’s about being. Play is a state of grace, innocence, wonder and creativity and happens when anyone is truly living in the present tense.
The natural activity of early childhood, play is what children do and their way of life. Playing is a priority in early childhood, yet not all play is the same. Active play: running, jumping, climbing, riding, and other use of large muscles. Quiet play: reading, stringing, coloring, etc. Cooperative or social play: games and activities that involve more than one. Solitary play: drawing, dreaming, or any activity that involves only one. Manipulative play: putting together puzzles, building with blocks, cutting and pasting, or any activity that involves eye-hand coordination or fine motor skills.
Creative play: painting, molding, solving problems, making music, telling stories, or any activity that involves a child’s imagination. Dramatic play: dress-up, make-believe, or any play that involves pretending. The categories overlap and any activity will likely fall into more than one. Yes, according to the Alliance for Childhood and others. The digital age has had a huge impact on children’s play, as well. David Elkind, noted child development expert, theorizes that a faster speed of life characterized by instant access to information via the Internet and to each other through cell phones has garnered a sense that people can do more, leading to booking more commitments for children. Even though research has proven the value of play, play is at risk, making it more important than ever to support healthy play for all children.
Provide a wide variety of play experiences and materials through which young kids can try new things, experiment, ask questions, talk, read, sing, dance, get messy at times, explore, and listen. Fuel creativity, curiosity, and the desire to know more. Allow time for free play in which children are choosing and directing play, balanced with structured play. Monitor play and step in with an idea if a conflict arises, offer a new prop when enthusiasm wanes, or redirect play as needed. Offer opportunities to play safely outdoors as well as indoors.
Adopt a playful attitude, and model playing. Notice and comment on children’s healthy play to show that you recognize the importance and meaning of play in their lives. When children have this kind of support, the benefits include gaining confidence as well as self-esteem, building relationships, problem-solving, conflict resolution, expanding language, understanding rules and limits, discovering talents, sparking creativity, inspiring thinking, defining personality, and sorting out likes and dislikes. Traditional ideas of play include setting aside time for children to play games or with toys, yet circumstances for play are everywhere, most all the time. Everyone can play everyday by extending the idea of play to include a playful approach to life and looking for play opportunities in ordinary places, as well as in traditional ways. Consider the story of Shau-yu, who asks her father for permission to play, but is told she must go on an errand first. Then, take a lesson from Billy, who only wanted a bucket for his birthday but has to talk his parents into giving him this seemingly meager gift instead of a new computer game or a bike.
When setting out spoons, ask children to do a simple science experiment. Look at the back of a shiny spoon until a reflection is seen. Then, turn the spoon over and look into the bowl of the spoon to find a reflection again. When driving, walking, or anytime you need to establish quiet time or create a calm transition, ask children to be still, listen for sounds, and identify as many as they can with your help.