The type of play that is most beneficial to learning is explorative, active, and child-led.
This type of play is often the result of boredom - yes, boredom!
Leaving free time, not filling it for them, when they hit that "I'm soooo bored," moment means something great is about to happen.
Meaningful, playful learning occurs naturally when children are provided time and space to invent.
It is enjoyable, open-ended, and most beneficial when it isn’t planned or facilitated by an adult. It can be still and quiet (like your infant watching the shadows on the floor) or loud and active (like your children pretending to be zoo animals).
Play is really important. Really.
Children are natural learners and are always seeking new information and creating connections. Play is the brain's way of testing ideas, constructing knowledge and developing skills.
Research has found that play stimulates the same fight or flight response pathways in the brain, but without triggering the stress response.
As adults, we know that when we are in a heightened state of alertness (fight or flight response) we are neurologically primed to remember these moments for our own safety and survival.
Play activates those same heightened brain pathways, meaning that new information is processed quickly and effectively. Skills learned during play are retained far faster than those taught through instruction.
Play is critical to a child’s sense of identity and confidence. Through play, children can test their abilities and talents in low-risk scenarios. They can practice social interactions and hone their communication skills.
They also make sense of science and mathematical concepts, learn how everything works, and build literacy skills.
Children that get lots of time to play during early childhood do better in school than those that spent their preschool years in highly academic programs.
How to support a playful childhood
Spend time watching your child without interrupting. What toys does she prefer? How does he use the materials? How long does it hold interest? What behaviors might be repeated or gained?
Sensitive observation requires watching without suggesting or correcting or quizzing. It can be difficult at first but comes with practice.
Notice Play Schemas:
Schemas are the urges that appear during play that a re repeated. They often can seem like testing (dropping a cup from the high chair over and over) but are really the work of a scientist performing an experiment enough times to draw a valid conclusion.
Children will typically explore all the schemas over the course of the early childhood years, but they will favor different schemas at different times and some children favor a particular schema all through their childhood.
Creating a Place for Play:
When you have observed your child’s play preferences and noticed which schemas they are currently working on, you can create a play space that supports that work.
Children play independently for longer periods of time when the play space has been curated for them.
Fewer, more intentional materials and easy access to the things that interest them is ideal. Having every possible toy in large baskets in the same area is overwhelming and leads to a child seeking adult intervention to help them find something to do.
Making Time for Play:
Carve out long periods of uninterrupted time for your child to play. When they are rested and fed, they can sustain interest longer than we realize.
The most common interruption to a child’s work is the adult commenting, suggesting, quizzing, or even changing the child’s play. Allow your child to make their own plan and to carry it out without interference.
We often don’t understand their play or we are bored by it (as we should be) and try to elevate it or make it more ‘educational’. This can undermine the child’s sense of self and stop the important connections the child was making.
Provide the Materials for Play:
The child is the researcher, we are their assistant.
We set up the lab and document their findings. They set the research agenda, conduct the research, and draw the conclusions. A good research assistant prepares the lab with all of the needed tools and materials.
When selecting your child’s play materials, remember that simple, real materials are far more interesting than complicated, fantastical, or overwhelming toys. Children want to interact with the materials they see you using everyday. The more active the toy, the more passive the child.