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Do you remember the feeling of jumping for your life from one surface to another to avoid the lava? Or the deep friendships between your dolls? Or the feeling of accomplishment at building a tower with all the blocks? Like any child, I can bet that you played. Children need to play in order to grow and develop, it comes naturally to them and as parents we need to understand that and support them.
First of all, children are relaxed when they are playing and the learning comes to them through the interest in what they are doing. They do not need to be sat down and taught how to properly stack blocks if they are given the time and space to enjoy the activity and learn on their own. Through trial and error they will learn the importance of a wide base and keeping the blocks aligned. There is no pressure in learning or being taught when they are teaching themselves at their own pace.
In today’s world there is a lot of pressure on children to learn. Even as adults we would probably prefer not to have to learn under pressure so let’s not put that pressure on children either. Have you ever gone down a Wikipedia rabbit hole? I know I have! You start out just by looking up something you are a little bit curious about and you find yourself an hour or two later knowing just about everything on a topic. You learn because you are enjoying it. Children are the same way, and it is important that we allow them the opportunity to learn through play
Before you start thinking I’m a little too hippy dippy, I do believe in some more formal settings for children, especially older children, to learn particular things such as mathematics, spelling, science, etc. but I believe that even in those topics we must remember that interested and engaged children will absorb more information than those who are force fed. Dressing up learning in a way that feels fun and more like a game makes learning a lot more fun than saying, “Repeat after me,” 100 times until the menial fact is memorized, but not understood. I believe in following the interests of the child to accomplish learning goals.
So how does play, even unstructured play, benefit your child?
#1. Social and Emotional Development
We might think social and emotional skills will come on their own but they can certainly be aided through play. Through dramatic play (such as dolls, dress up, house) your child can take on new roles and work out emotions and understand social situations. Have you ever thought out an entire conversation in your head which then prepared you for the real thing? Children are doing the same thing. Through their characters they can also practice expressing a range of emotions, practicing expressing anger through a doll can actually prepare them for a moment when they feel angry.
Through play they are also given a chance to learn to take turns, work with others and just generally how to get along and make friends.
#2. Language Development
Do you ever get so excited about something you can’t shut up about it? I’m definitely like that, and I’m certainly glad my husband is such a good listener. You child too may get really excited about something they are doing and will want to talk about it a lot! This is great and allows you to ask meaningful questions and engage in a deep conversation about the area of their interest. Also, if they are doing dramatic play like I mentioned earlier they will be practicing language skills. Even the quietest children can start talking when they are excited. Do you have a toddler? You might want to read here about how you can promote their language development.
#3. Cognitive (Mental) Development
Throughout play there is a lot of problem solving and logical thought going on. It may be something we would expect to help with cognitive development such as a puzzle, but even an toddler dropping something and picking it up, or a baby shaking a rattle and hearing the sound is a chance to build cognitive skills. It’s important that we give them to time to work on this on their own without interrupting so they can figure it out for themselves.
#4. Physical Development
Physical development is divided into two types, fine motor (which basically means using a small part of your body, think skills needed to maneuver a pencil) and gross motor (which is using large parts of your body). Fine motor skills can be developed as your child strings beads or connects blocks. For younger children, especially babies, fine motor skills can be tricky to work on because you have to be wary of any choking hazards. My baby has really enjoyed the Oball and I have watched as it has helped develop her fine motor skills. Some of the Oballs were recalled for being a potential choking hazard, so check your serial numbers online and go for this version of the Oball, which doesn’t have the small beads inside. For fine motor she also enjoys playing with ribbons and with a little sack I hand sewed together with beans and rice inside for her to feel. Sensory play is another great way for young children to practice their fine motor skills, I have a whole post dedicated just to that.
As for gross motor skills the possibilities are endless at any age. The young baby who is excited to see your face may turn their head, while your older child is jumping in a pile of leaves. Safe outdoor play is especially important (during all seasons) to foster gross motor development. As your child plays and explored their gross motor skills will also grow and develop.
These have been my top 4 reasons why children need to play. They will learn a lot from playing and we need to optimize this time for them, and here are my top tips on how to do so.
#1. Consider the areas of development and age appropriateness
As an early childhood educator this at times comes naturally to me, but other times I do need to ask myself how I can best foster a particular area of my daughter’s development. I know she is learning a lot, even if I’m not being intentional about it, but sometimes I like to take a step back and assess the variety of what she is learning. I can then realize maybe I am failing to provide enough opportunities in a certain area and then will do my best to create those opportunities for her. For instance, when I created her play space for 9 months old I knew it was important to give her opportunities for safe gross motor play. Previously the house was kind of unsafe and I was discouraging her from doing too much because there had been one too many bloody lips. When I created her play space I included small pieces of furniture that I knew she would be able to pull herself up on (such as a footstool I wasn’t using), I also like to put interesting toys on those items to make her curious enough to want to pull herself up on them. So, to optimize the child’s place it is great to think of every area of their development and make sure they have the opportunities to explore each of these. If you need ideas I like going on Pinterest for this, but the only problem is not everything is going to be right for YOUR child. Think of your child’s skills, what they need to work on and what materials you have available and you may be surprised what you can come up with on your own!
#2. Keep it safe and simple
I probably don’t need to tell you to keep it safe, I think that’s already built into us more than others (and some of us to a fault). Keeping the activities safe enough though for your child to do completely independently is wonderful because then they can complete the task on their own. What a great feeling of accomplishment that is! Keeping the activities as simple as required for their age is also important, if they activity is too complicated for them, or even just too stimulating, then it can easily become more stressful than enjoyable. That’s no fun at all! Not every activity has to be this elaborate, Pinterest worthy concoction. We are busy mamas who ain’t got no time for that! Keeping it simple also makes it intriguing for your child. Laying out an activity on a place mat or tray will contain the activity and also draw attention to it.
I should mention, when I say activity I don’t necessarily mean, “Ok, at 3 o’clock you are going to come over to the sandbox and play with these toy animals until we have a meaningful conversation about animals, world geography and creation.” Sometimes an activity can mean a particular planned out event with instructions and a predetermined end result (lots to be learnt there!) but when I say activity I also just mean an opportunity – setting up the sandbox with the toy animals can be both an activity and an opportunity. When your child does go to the sandbox there will be a lot of potential for learning for them when they get there. It doesn’t have to be planned event, just a planned opportunity. Keeping these opportune activities safe and simple will be great for fostering learning in your child.
#3. Use open-ended materials
Like, I love, love, love them! And so do children! An open-ended materials means something that can be played with and used for anything according to your child’s imagination. A basket full of jar lids (one of my baby’s favourite “toys”) would be an example of an open-ended material. There are some toys though that leave very little to the imagination, they are usually shiny, battery operated and basically only do one thing which is going to eventually get boring (obviously). You wouldn’t see a lot of toys like this in a Montessori classroom. The toy industry definitely makes big bucks on these toys though, and honestly they can seem interesting but they can get repetitive and boring. Some of my baby’s favourite toys aren’t really toys at all.
Keeping things open ended also means it’s probably going to be cheaper for you because you can give your child things from around the house to play with. Old plastic containers can easily become blocks, used for nesting, or made into instruments. For dramatic play however it is nice to use more specific items, but keeping them simple and as real as possible is great too. For instance, in an emergent curriculum environment I once had a group of kindergarten girls interested in hair styling. I went to a hair salon and asked for old bottles of their products, cut the cord off an old hair straightener and blow dryer and collected some other items and made a salon for them. I probably could have bought a “toy” version of those things but using the real thing was more realistic and cheaper (yay!).
#4. Go outside!
Speaking of open-ended materials, go outside! There is so much to learn and to do outside and it is always changing. If you have a yard make sure it is safe, or if you don’t have your own yard find a park or suitable play space for your children and dress appropriately for the weather (both your children and yourself). There isn’t too much I need to say on this one, God created a beautiful playground for our children to learn and grow in so we should use it. I used to live in a bush village in Malawi and the children played a lot but it was never indoors as houses were basically just for sleeping in. Even cooking was done outside, and so was the children’s learning through play!
#5. Find (free!) Child Programs
Sometimes you just need to outsource the work to someone else, and if you are lucky there may be some free or cheap programs in your area such as a playgroup or baby class. These environments have already been set up by professional educators to foster learning and it can also be a chance for your children (and you, woohoo!) to socialize with others. This can be a great chance for your child to explore news things that you might not have at home such as a water table or circle time.
One word of caution though, please don’t feel like this is necessary or you are a bad mom if you can’t make this work for you. I know a mom who felt pressured by her mother in law that she needed to take her 8 month old to swim classes, music classes and reading groups so her baby could socialize with other babies. Ummm…what? Don’t feel pressured to do any of these things if they don’t work for you. You can read to your baby at home, and you can make instruments at home, and you can swim in the bath at home! Going out and joining groups is great but if it doesn’t work for your family then it doesn’t work for your family. If socializing is a factor then maybe invite over another family or meet up in a park. No pressure mama, you’re doing great!
So as you can see, your children have a lot to learn through play and we have a role in making it a meaningful time for them. This is just the tip of the iceberg on this topic and I could go a lot deeper on each area of development and age but I will stop myself here for today. Are there any areas of development you need help optimizing for your child, or any questions you have for me? Let me know down in the comments and I will help you out the best I can, or if it’s a big topic I will write another post on that area just for you!
Have a happy day mamas!
The Moving Mama
Lizzy Mash is an experienced early childhood educator now living in Africa as a missionary working with children and families.
She teaches Christian moms how to take a more respectful and Christ-like approach to motherhood by using Gentle Parenting strategies.