Our society separates the concept of play from that of work. However, for children, play is the work they do naturally as a means of learning about the world in which they live. Play is vitally important to a child’s social and emotional development.
As parents, you are your child’s favorite playmate. However, parents often take the attitude that playing is done only when time allows or when it can be scheduled in as work allows. This limits opportunities to enjoy your children’s company and to learn a great deal about their personalities and the way they think and reason.
By focusing your attention on them and by allowing them to “master” their environment, you will help build their self-esteem.
What is Play?
Play is any activity which one enjoys doing. Play is crucial to healthy development. Children practice many skills and discover concepts through play. Sometimes as adults, we seem to have forgotten that play can take many forms, such as:
- the simple game of peek-a-boo or “this little piggy” for an infant,
- building with blocks for a toddler or preschooler,
- participating on a team sport or playing board games for an older child. These activities can be simple with no rules or quite complicated with a particular set of rules.
The type of play that is most important is free play, any activity a child chooses to engage in independently or with someone else. It is led by the child’s interest and progresses as far as the child’s ability and imagination will allow.
You can help initiate play by providing interesting objects for your baby to see and by talking playfully to him as you show him these objects in his environment. Your baby will watch your face and learn to respond to your expressions.
As your child gets older and is more able to respond, to be verbal, and to move, play takes on a whole new dimension. Favorites of toddlers and preschool-age children are those that involve gross motor skills like chase, rolling or throwing a ball, clapping hands, and songs with hand and body movements. This is also the stage at which children enjoy toys such as blocks, puzzles, and other manipulative toys.
Dramatic play, using dolls, dress-up clothes, puppets and other props allow the child to role play activities in which they have observed adults participating. Children are great mimics and will repeat the behaviors of their parents and other adults. For example:
- the little girl who pretends to cook in a play kitchen while holding a toy cell phone between her ear and shoulder has most likely seen mom doing the same activity over and over.
- the little boy who puts a pencil or crayon behind his ear and attempts to measure things with dad’s tape measure has watched his dad do the same thing.
Tips for Playing with Young Children
Here are some pointers for parents who are not sure how to play with their very young children.
- Relax and enjoy the activity. Do not try to take charge, but allow your child to take the lead. Your role is to show interest and approval and provide encouragement.
- If your child begins to behave in a manner that is unacceptable, it is important to let him know what he is doing wrong and to teach him what he can do differently next time.
- Make sure that the toys or materials being used are age appropriate. This is often taken care of by the child’s interest.
- Learn to ask open-ended questions while you play, such as:
- What do you think will happen if _____________________?
- Can you think of another way to ______________________?
- What else can you build with those blocks?
- Where else could that puzzle piece go?
- Encourage further exploration. If your child seems to be getting frustrated, you can make suggestions for another way to look at the problem. For example, to the child who is upset because his tower keeps falling over, you can show him how to use bigger blocks at the bottom.
- If you have more than one child, they will vie for your attention sooner or later. These are opportunities for them to learn about taking turns or sharing.
- When children get old enough to begin playing competitive games such as races or board games, you can model good sportsmanship. Be a good loser by expressing how much fun you had participating in the activity and by congratulating the winner. Equally as important is to be a good winner by not gloating or being too competitive with young children.
- If you and your child are not enjoying the activity, simply don’t continue. Play should be something that is enjoyable for everyone involved.
In case you need more convincing that play is important, here are some closing quotes:
Play is the highest form of research. -Albert Einstein
Play is our brain’s favorite way of learning. – Diane Ackerman
It is paradoxical that many educators and parents still differentiate between a time for learning and a time for play without seeing the vital connection between them. – Leo F. Buscaglia
By Marjorie Bateman
If you found this article helpful, click here to make a donation to The Center for Parenting Education. Your support will enable us to continue to provide quality information free of charge.