As adults we go to our job everyday to work. We problem solve, create, and understand our career’s aspects on a daily basis. The same is true with a child. They go to their playroom or preschool everyday to “work.” In a child’s eyes, her play is her work. She is solving problems, creating new things, and understanding her world through play. In today’s society, unstructured, uninterrupted play time is hard to find, especially in preschool settings. It’s important to expose your child to this type of play on a daily basis both individually and within groups. The importance of play in early childhood is essential.
The research increasingly supports the importance of play in early childhood, but the government overlooks this research. They see how well other countries are doing academically and assume we need more academics to top the world. However, if the government looks closely, they will see that these top rated countries provide students with more play time.
In Finland, one of the top performing countries, students don’t start school until they are 7 years old and at that time they only attend school for half a day. This allow students to have more play time in the vital years where the brain is rapidly developing.
Related: Play and Learn: Can You Do Them at the Same Time?
Preschool is important in Finland and all children have a right to preschool despite their income level. All preschool teachers hold a bachelor’s degree as well. Finland’s government trusts their teachers to make educational decisions that best support their students. The government doesn’t interfere as much as the US.
And get this, students in Finland get at least an hour of recess a day! It makes you wonder why our government is doing the OPPOSITE of the top performing countries.
Related: The Toddler Experience: A Hands-On Toddler Curriculum
So why is play so important in t he early years?
During play children interact with their world. They recreate what they have learned by watching adults. You have probably heard of the saying that if we can teach it then we fully understand it. In a way, play is how a child “teaches” what they learned. They practice what they see. Play also gives children time to explore new things and make sense of these things. Below are just some of the skills a child learns, develops, and strengthens through play.
Coping skills- how to deal with different situations
Limits- what he can/can’t do
Problem solving techniques– trial and error
Executive functioning skills- According to WebMD.com, these skills are a set of mental skills that helps you get things done
Resilience- recover quickly when things go wrong
Making mistakes- and knowing that it’s okay to make them! I teach my daughter that mistakes are learning opportunities.
Regulation of emotions- We are working on this now. Sicily throws a temper tantrum and screams at the top of her lungs when something doesn’t go the way she thinks it will.
Verbal and nonverbal skills
Imagination- something a lot of kids lack these days
Cultural awareness- differences among peers
Fine and gross motor skills
Making sense of the world- practicing what he saw adults do
Seeing others point of view
Develop their personalities
These are all skills that a person uses in his/her everyday life as an adult. We learn and perfect these skills as children through our play. Without the opportunity for unstructured, uninterrupted play, our society will not function when these children reach adulthood.
Unstructured, Uninterrupted Play in Early Childhood
So what does unstructured, uninterrupted play look like? Unstructured play is open-ended and has endless opportunities. The child can use the materials any way she likes. That means, as an adult, you don’t interrupt the child to show her the correct way to use the tools. Let her explore, problem solve, and figure it out on her own.
Piaget once said “Each time someone prematurely teaches a child something he could have discovered himself, that child is kept from inventing it and consequently from understanding it completely.” Blocks, dolls, and art materials are all good resources for unstructured play.
When you think of unstructured play materials think of “old-fashioned” toys. The toys without all the fancy buttons. During unstructured play, a child is using their imagination to create their own objectives. Adults are not telling them what to do. As a child grows older, you start to see the process of forming their own objectives as they interact with others and create a plan for their play time.
Unstructured play time is a time for them to do whatever they want with the materials they choose. Unstructured play allows the children time to develop deep understanding of the world around them.
Make sure you give children a good chunk of uninterrupted time to play. A child may be on the verge of a breakthrough right when you say “Let’s go. It’s time for dinner.” Let them choose when play time is over.
Related: What is Tot School?
If you have to leave, watch for a break in their concentration to tell them it’s time to clean up. Don’t interrupt a child’s thinking because you never know what he is discovering at that exact moment. If you have to interrupt a serious play time, give them a gentle warning. Say something like “I know you are busy right now, but it is time to go pick up your sister. I’m going to finish getting ready. You have 5 more minutes.” This way they know what to expect in the next few minutes.
Uninterrupted also means no distractions such as the TV or loud dancing type music. I will play classical or quiet type music during our unstructured play time. We’ve been listening to the Fantasia sound track the past few weeks.
Structured vs. Unstructured Play
Structured play is guided by specific objectives set forth by an adult. There is usually a set of rules for this type of play. Examples of structured play are games, puzzles, and organized sports. Toys that play music and have buttons to push are structured play toys.
Parents can sometimes turn unstructured play into structured play when they tell a child how to use a certain material. For example, your child might be wearing a bowl on his head. You really don’t know why he chose to put the bowl on his head, but you tell him that he has to use the bowl to put food in. Now you have turned your child’s unstructured play into structured play by giving him rules for his materials. He was robbed of the chance to figure out how to use the bowl on his own and developing a deep understanding of the material.
So which is best? Both! Find a balance of both structured and unstructured play each day for your child to reach the maximum benefits of play.
The Adults Role in a Child’s Play
The role of the adult is simple, provide open-ended materials that pique your child’s interest, provokes questions, and provides a challenge. Watch your child make discoveries and provide materials to build onto their understandings. Offer guidance, but remember not to show them how to do something. Ask questions to help your child reach the conclusion on their own. Be their support. Remember they are working hard every day to learn about their world!
Your Turn: What is your child’s favorite toy/material to play with?
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