Children learn through play.
We see play as just “fun” but for children play is hard work. It is a child's full time job to play. For children play comes naturally. It is so important to give children opportunities to play -- unstructured, open ended, child centered play. We may see it as meaningless but it is an important developmental activity for a child. Children learn through play.
By giving children an opportunity to play we give them an opportunity to learn. Through play they develop:
How does play come so easily to little children?
They have less outward restraints -- they have less focus on what society "thinks" as well as being less self-conscious about what they are doing. As we “grow up” it gets harder for us to play as freely as we did as children. We have to work at it.
What can we do to enhance their learning while they play?
We can give them opportunities to develop their imaginations by allowing them to engage in open ended play. Children used to have toys that were not connected to a product, movie or book. They would use a stick as a doll or train. They developed their own scenarios without adults orchestrating the play. When they had a train it was just a train not a train with a name and a specific role in the play. It is hard not to allow your child to have a Thomas or a Dora but you can help them develop the play without mirroring the story or TV show.
Kids today are attracted to the same things as when our boys were young but the difference then was that a train was just that -- a train, dinosaurs were dinosaurs, tools were hammers without a specific builder using them. Our first experience with attaching a particular movie/story to the generic dinosaur was Land Before Time and the dinosaur characters in the movie. We had to drive to a Mercer Island Pizza Hut to get Sharp Tooth. I never thought I would have allowed an advertisers scheme to manipulate me to buy pizza in order to get a toy. It was through my children's big, pleading eyes. We drove across town to buy a pizza in order to get the last dinosaur in the collection. Advertisers have found a big target population to sell items to – children.
It is important to give your child a chance to use their creativity when they play not just copy what they see or hear. One way to help your child develop their imagination is to give them opportunities to think and play "outside the box" that society puts their toy in. A prime example of how children enjoy the open ended "toy" is watching a child play with the box and wrapping paper the toy came in instead of with the toys that came in the box. If you allow children to have items that they can use to create their own play scene -- things that do not already have a story line attached to them—you allow them to engage their mind in their play.
Giving them opportunities for open-ended activities will encourage your child to develop their imagination and enhance their cognitive skills. Our sons played for hours with wooden blocks, animals and cars. Often they built towers, towns, boats, roadways -- the start of each project was new and changed as they developed the idea for that day. It was the same set of blocks yet used to create different outcomes, scenarios, stories. Toys are the same, yet different, now -- Legos used to be an assortment of colored building blocks but now they have a theme or specific story line attached that pre-determines the outcome of the play, many books have a show or movie that sets the visual imagery, dolls/trucks/trains have a pre-determined personality or story line. The play is less imaginative and less creative if the child is just re-creating what they have already seen or knows about the characters or materials they are playing with. It is important to help the child create his/her own story line or scenario rather than just mimic one that has already been determined by a toy manufacturer.
A natural arena for open-ended play is the backyard.
Give them time to be outside playing in the yard -- they can dig in the dirt, play with water, use animals as they make their own zoo or farm, plant a garden, watch the clouds, read a book. Being outside is something that is important for developing empathy for living things. They learn to respect living things -- both animals and plant life. Children need time outdoors -- unstructured time to play in natural surroundings. They experience the world through all of their senses. It gives them opportunities for leaning balance, eye hand coordination, cause and effect, visual discrimination, depth perception, enhances their hearing, creates associations with sound/sight to the knowledge they have acquired while reading books -- and you just thought they were playing outside! As they get older they can organize group play. The older kids set up the scenario and the younger kids get to play the parts. It is through this kind of multi-age play that they can develop social skills, problem solving techniques, leadership skills and self- confidence. Allowing the children to govern the play gives the child opportunities for developing abilities to manage their bodies and emotions, express their opinions and feelings, and create an environment of cooperation. They learn how to play together with rules and how to deal with their feelings when the outcomes of the group play are not what they want them to be.
When you are inside the house you can set up open ended activities that allow children to use household items for activities that encourage academic learning through play -- measuring and pouring develops spatial awareness (science, math, verbal skills), sorting items like buttons, nuts and bolts, food items (sensory awareness, verbal skills, visual discrimination), using socks for puppets, scraps of cloth for art projects (visual discrimination, 5 senses, creative problem solving).
There is a place and time for both open ended activities and playing with beloved characters. We had Snow White and the Seven "DORFS" memorized – I could not miss a word or page - ever! While on a trip to Ballard I had to stop at a toy store and ask permission to put the "dorfs" that were on display in the window in the correct order (Doc to Dopey). Winnie the Pooh and Mickey were part of the Disneyland play, Beatrix Potter was played out with their stuffed animals but they also made magic brews in the backyard, set up wild safaris in the garden and just laid in the grass and looked at the sky.
Give your child a balance of activities so they can develop creative thinking skills, cooperative play, and problem solving skills. Through play your child is developing many new skills that will be the building blocks for a lifetime of learning.