Every minute of every child’s life is spent soaking up the world around them, and they don’t even realize the importance of soaking it all in. As parents, we don’t always realize that every moment is a learning moment for our children either. Children sit on the floor and play with toys and roll around on their sides and try to pull themselves up on the sofa and then you rush over to make sure they don’t fall. It may seem like time is passing with no real importance, but the reality is that your child is seeing everything for the first time and trying to make sense of what he or she is seeing. It looks like they are playing to us, but they are learning.
As a parent you want to have a better understanding of how your child is viewing the world and you want to help shape their view of the world around them. By understanding that play is an essential part of a child’s learning and development you can help the process along in a much more effective manner. Spending more time with your child playing can help encourage them and make them feel it is safe to explore the unknown. There are many theories about learning and child development, psychology and sociology, but the bottom line is that play is number one in a child’s mind: all day everyday. Tapping into that desire can help you teach your child about the world around them.
The Child Development Institute reminds us that play is an incredibly important part of developing little minds, and there are opportunities everywhere to help your child learn. The CDI identifies four major types of learning that can be implemented to help children learn, but that these types of learning also can occur naturally for children. There are several other forms of learning identified by other sources, but these four are core to the general consensus that play develops learning. The four types of learning activities identified by the Child Development Institute are social play, constructive play, fantasy play and games with rules (to create the understanding of structure). We’ll look at these in greater detail to help you understand how children learn through play.
The obvious benefits of social play include allowing children the opportunity to get along with other people, learning to control emotions and conversations and to develop into confident human beings. Children learn to recognize others and opportunities and can begin to see bits of themselves in others. It’s also fun for children to be around other children. Mummy groups are generally popular for socializing children and helping them to learn to interact with other children. Some kids are shy and prefer not to play with other kids but the more exposure children have to each other the more social they may become. As you would expect, sometimes kids don’t get along, and so this type of interaction can help them learn to cope and deal with other personalities in life. They also learn to share, take turns, encourage one another and support one another in a group or social setting.
Constructive play is the term used for the type of play we are most familiar with: building, creating, coloring, making something out of something else (ie, forts out of blankets). Constructive play, according to the Child Development Institute, allows children to figure out what works and what doesn’t. It’s a play form of trial and error. If a child wants to build a fort out of blankets, he or she must be able to visualize what that fort will look like, how many blankets they will need, where the chairs or tables will go to build the fort. Constructive play allows children to use their imagination to bring something to life. Spending a few hours building with blocks can produce a huge variety of products! You never know what a child will imagine!
Fantasy play is an amazing opportunity for children to imagine in the space of limitless possibilities: today they want to be a pink unicorn and tomorrow they want to be an elfish prince. They can literally be anything they can imagine and this type of play teaches children to see outside of themselves and think bigger and broader about everyday tasks and moments. Giving your children the opportunity to engage in fantasy place allows them to think without rules and forget the restrictions that are placed on them, even at an early age. We are born into rules and standards and as parents we start enforcing them at an early age: fantasy play can help release your child’s inner rule-follower and allow them to become forward thinking citizens.
Speaking of rules and restrictions, let’s move on to explore playing games which feature rules. While fantasy play is designed or identified as being open play with no limits, games with rules help children learn to follow procedure and engage in civil ways. While children don’t know this of course, as parents, we worry constantly that our children will not turn out the way we hoped and so we start right from the day they are born placing standards and rules on them.
We use games to teach them how to follow rules, but really this is just a form of preparing them for functioning society. There is no right or wrong way: fantasy play is not better than games with rules. They both have a place in the learning of a developing child. The important thing to remember is that if you can, mix it up a little. There are times when rules are important and there are times when rules are less important. Learning to be flexible is part of being a growing person, and giving your child the opportunity to engage in several types of learning helps to create that flexibility in them.
Another thing to consider when planning for your child’s playtime is how they might interact with formal learning situations. Does your child need to improve his or her motor skills? Do they need to improve their verbal skills? Maybe they need to work on being patient – although, that one can take years! The most important thing to ensure is that your child has a variety of learning opportunities and exposure to a plethora of situations to help define their skills and strengths.
It is also important for children to be aware of their weaknesses, not so they can feel badly about them, but so they can be on the look out to improve those weaknesses. This is more difficult for younger children, obviously, but children as young as 5 or 6 years old should be able to start taking accountability for their actions and be mindful of how they can be improving on their learning opportunities themselves. One way to do this is to encourage them to always think, “what if….?” What if they climbed to the top of the slide? What if they built a giant castle from pillows? What if they hit that other child with the ball? By posing the idea “what if” to your child, you are opening them up to the power of choice. Given an opportunity to consider pros and cons of a situation will help children to learn to make decisions in a more thoughtful, and possibly informed way.
Finally, when you are considering your child’s playtime, consider it valuable time. Play is how children learn. Be mindful of this when you are registering your children for daycare or sitting services: many push play to encourage the development of many skills. While play looks like a waste of time to some, it is very valuable to others, including your children. Daycare services or sitting services may look like they are just letting your child play alone all day, but believe that those times are deliberate and necessary to help develop your child’s world. Children don’t know how to do many things and they figure it out through play. If only we could carry that notion into adulthood – wouldn’t life be so much more fun!