Monday, March 27, 2023

The Power of Play 🛝


When we think of the word “learning,” it’s safe to say most of us imagine one teacher (usually at the front of the room) in front of many students (usually sitting still at their desks) with open books. What would you say if you found out that the most natural way for our kiddos to learn is actually through play. Yes, you read that correctly. Why is that?

Over the past few decades, we have seen new trends emerge in learning through models in all levels of education, especially for our littlest learners. This is because the art of actually letting a child play (we will get into what that means in a minute) is proven to be extremely positive for children. From fostering greater independence and perseverance, developing their sense of imagination and creativity, and even improving cognitive growth and physical fitness, the benefits are endless. It’s been found that true play and learning through play help all phases of a child’s development, and has an important role in creating kids’ sense of confidence and identity. 

Now you may be asking yourself, what is true play? Or what are the conditions that must be met for your child to reap the benefits of play. It’s actually pretty simple. Basically, true play is when the child is in charge (obviously, within reason). The child is the one who chooses what they want to play, how they want to play, how long they are going to play, and who they want to play with. It is the child who creates their own “rules of play” and the child who is self-directing the activity. While of course in many cases adult supervision may be necessary, or even better, the adult is playing with them, the adult is not the agent in charge of the process. The adult doesn’t have an agenda, doesn’t give the child parameters, and is there to watch the child explore and have fun doing so. 

While this might seem extremely basic, it’s important that we think about the world we live in today and the lives that most of us have created for our children. More and more, we are seeing an increase of organized play or organized activities (sports, music lessons, language classes, etc.) and we are seeing it at younger and younger ages. Of course there are benefits of organized activities and a lot of them can be very enriching, if that is all our child’s experiences with play, we are missing out on many opportunities for growth. Besides the fact that most of the time these activities are centered on achieving something or mastering a skill (basically a means to an end), it’s also true that most of the time they are chosen by the grown-ups and tend to reflect their interests, not those of the children. We must make sure that we also make room for child-lead activities in environments with more freedom. By letting our kiddos play with the one goal being to enjoy themselves and allowing them to self-direct their activities we help them develop so many important skills without even realizing it, which will benefit them in all areas of their lives and also help them to become more effective grown-ups. 

Curious about how to incorporate more true play at home?

UNPLUG. Yes we know, you’ve heard it everywhere. Yes we know, it can be difficult. That being said, it is one of the most fundamental parts of welcoming true play into your home. It may be easier to do a whole family unplug so that your kiddo sees that everyone is putting down the devices for a while. Of course at the start your child will likely not know what to do, tell you that they’re bored, etc. but boredom is an extremely important factor in children’s development. Only once the boredom sets in does the magic begin to happen!  

MAKE PLAY A PRIORITY. When you think about your children’s schedule, how much of their day is devoted to structure? Whether that be learning or activities, routines or obligations? How would you feel if almost every moment of your day was decided for you? Just like you may carve out time to have dinner as a family or to do household chores, we need to be adding play to our schedules. There is huge value in our kiddos seeing that play can be prioritized just like other things. If it’s play as a family, even better! It’s also important to note that this doesn’t just apply to younger children. Older kids and teenagers can also benefit from devoting time to having fun as a family (think board games, playing cards, or playing a sport together).

CHOOSE OPEN ENDED TOYS. Many toys on the market today either seem to “do” everything or have very specific functions. While this can be a positive for certain situations, it’s also the reason many kids play with something for a few hours, or days, or weeks, and then get bored. It’s like they have figured it all out and there’s nothing less to explore. Including open ended toys in your home will provide children with literally endless possibilities and foster their creativity and imagination in ways that other toys wouldn’t. Think about it, have you ever seen how much fun kids can have with cardboard boxes? It’s also worthy to note that the creativity and initiative that kids have to use when playing with open ended toys (like blocks, cars, dolls, play dough, paper and markers, etc.) also helps their executive functions, something that will have positive implications in all other areas of their lives. 

Last but not least, DON’T BE AFRAID TO GET MESSY. Obviously the thought of making a mess (and then having to clean it up) can be overwhelming for a lot of parents. It’s true that you will have to set some boundaries and also allot time for the clean-up process (although you should also be including your child and letting them give you a helping hand), but it’s also true that letting kids use materials that are more on the messy side can encourage them to get even more creative and to have even more fun. Think face paint, cooking or baking, collages, or playing outside in nature. While it may not be feasible to incorporate these kinds of activities into your schedule every day, it’s important that kids see it’s okay to make a mess once in a while. 

Go play! Have fun!