Overview: There is no question about it. Play is the most important part of any child’s life. The importance of play in early childhood cannot be matched. Check out the different skills your child is learning and why you should just let them play!
Welcome to the Learning Through Play Series where we are exploring everything you need to know about play. Be sure to check out the other posts in this series.
- The Importance of Play in Early Childhood: Why You Should Just Let Them Play
- The Importance of Sensory Play
- Play & Learn: Can You Really Do Them at the Same Time?
- 6 Stages of Play
- 7 Types of Play
- Imaginative Play: What You Need to Know
- All About Block Play
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.
What is the Importance of Play in the 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- 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
-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
-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 would 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. When you think of unstructured play materials think of “old-fashioned” toys. The child can use the materials any way they like. That means you don’t interrupt the child to show them the “correct way” to use the tools. Let the child explore, problem solve, and figure it out on their own.
Related: The Adult’s Role in a Child-Led Approach
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.
During unstructured play, a child is using their imagination to create their own objectives. 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 allows the child time to develop deep understanding of the world around them. Make sure you give your child 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 play classical or quiet type music during our unstructured play time.
Structured vs. Unstructured Play
Structured play is guided by specific objectives created by an adult. There is usually a set of rules for this type of play. Games, puzzles, and organized sports are structured play examples. Toys that play music and have buttons to push are also 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 a bowl is to put food in or even worse show him what to do with the bowl.
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, developing a deep understanding of the bowl, and essentially thinking outside the box.
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!