behavior development play

The Importance of Play: How play boosts your child's brain power.

toddler preschooler play learning

Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play IS serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.”  Fred Rogers

This is one of my all time favorite quotes and one that highlights the importance of play in development.  While many parents understand that play is important, I don't know that they always understand how deep that learning goes.  

I remember taking a group of parents on a tour of the 3 year old special education preschool classroom program that I worked with many years ago.  A small group of children were happily playing on the floor with blocks, some were at the table with play dough, others were splashing in the water table -- it was beautiful to see how happy and engaged they were!

I asked the parent afterwards for their impressions as they were considering placing their child with speech and social delays in the program.  Their response was 'I don't think it's the right fit.  All they were doing was playing.  I didn't see any of them working on letters, colors, shapes or numbers.'  

What they didn't understand was the actual learning that was taking place during their play including: 

  • Language Skills: Play provides opportunities for children to communicate, express themselves, and enhance their language skills. Having to learn how to request items from a peer or tell a classmate 'no' during play is one of the BEST ways to work on language with young children.

  • Emotional Regulation: Play allows children to explore and express their emotions in a safe environment. It helps them understand and regulate their emotions, contributing to better emotional intelligence and self-control.  That play at the water table?  A calming activity allowing them to regulate their systems.  Same with the play dough.  Kids get stressed just like we do and sensory play activities allow them to release that stress in a calm, safe and fun manner.

  • Motor Skills Development: Physical play, including activities like climbing, running, and playing with toys, aids in the development of fine and gross motor skills. These skills are essential for later academic success and overall physical well-being.  Understand this:  EVERYTHING we do as adults is sitting of the foundation of our sensory and motor planning skills.  The more opportunities we give our children to refine and perfect that system, the better off they will have it for learning down the road.

  • Creativity and Imagination: Pretend play stimulates creativity and imagination. Through activities like role-playing or creating make-believe scenarios, children enhance their ability to think outside the box and come up with innovative ideas.  And did you know that creativity is highly correlated with intelligence?  

  • Social Skills: Cooperative play, such as playing with others in a group, helps children develop crucial social skills like sharing, taking turns, and teamwork. These skills are essential for positive social interactions later in life.  What the parent didn't see in looking around that preschool classroom were children learning how to negotiate and establish boundaries.  Play offers so many opportunities for social skill development.  

  • Peer Relationships: Related to social skills, play is a natural way for children to form friendships and build positive relationships with their peers. These early social connections lay the foundation for future interpersonal skills and a sense of community.  It takes time and practice to learn how to navigate friendships!  Practicing during play leads to stronger learning because more sensory systems are involved. 

  • Self-Discovery: Play allows children to explore and discover their interests, preferences, and abilities. It contributes to the development of a sense of identity and self-awareness.  This is an important component of self-identity and self-esteem!

  • Problem-Solving Skills: Play often involves facing challenges and problem-solving. Whether it's building blocks, solving puzzles, or navigating social situations, children learn to analyze situations and find solutions through play.  It is one of the key factors in developing executive functioning skills.

  • Academic Readiness: And finally, play is not just about fun; it also lays the groundwork for academic readiness. Many cognitive skills developed during play, such as counting, sorting, and categorizing, provide a foundation for later academic learning.

To wrap this one up, I want to share an interesting bit of research that really sums up just HOW play is a child's most powerful learning tool.  Scientists (Purvis, K) have discovered that it takes approximately 400 repetitions to create a new synapse in the brain, unless it is done in play, in which case it only takes 10 to 20 repetitions. Isn't that mind-blowing?!

So, the next time you see your child building. tower while playing on the floor or playing with baby dolls, think about what skills they are learning during that play interaction and how they will serve them as adults.