Children learn in a unique and amazing way. They are born with internal reflexes and, over time, modify those reflexes into intentional actions. As they grow and interact with the people and things around them they begin to identify objects, discover cause and effect and, eventually, begin to modify what they already know allowing it to become more specific.
In order for children to take some of the basic concepts they have discovered and shape them into more specific categories they must have real experiences with those objects. Children use their senses to notice the size, shape, texture, sound, etc of an object. As they play with object they are able to use their sense to discover more qualities and uses of an object. An abstract activity, like looking at a flashcard, lacks the multi-sensory and active nature that true play possesses.
Play gives children the opportunity to explore an object/idea in a way that is meaningful to them. Play gives the children concrete experiences with an object that they can later draw upon as they modify their understanding of that object making their understanding more specific and complex. Play also gives children a safe place to explore their fears. When children have seen something they do not understand or are afraid of, play gives them a situation where they are in control. The can incorporate aspects of what they do not understand or what they may be fearful of and explore it on their terms. Over and over they will explore the situation until they begin to become more comfortable with it.
There are many play activities that on the surface seem frivolous or unimportant; when, in reality, they develop critical skills necessary for continued growth and development. As children play they let their interests and curiosities direct what they are playing.
- They may take a block and use it as a plate or find a rhythm stick and pretend it is a pencil. This process of taking an object, observing its qualities and then using it in a new/unique way exercises a child’s ability to use creative thinking when finding solutions to a problem. It helps them find a way to achieve their goals using the resources they have. We rarely see children sitting on the rug refusing to play any longer because they can’t find a pretend telephone to use to call their friends. We are thrilled that they pick up a block, act out a phone conversation and develop those skills necessary for success in life.
- While playing with others, children begin to move beyond the perspective that they are the only person they need to think about. Depending on their age, they notice other children as they play, begin to play activities similar to what other children are playing nearby and eventually begin to actively play with other children sharing ideas. As children play with others, for the play to continue, they will have to negotiate their perspective and desires. Sometimes, they will have to delay getting what they want to allow a play-partner to get what they want. The negotiating, moderating and delaying personal gratification that stem from play are all important interpersonal skills that could not be developed in young children outside of play.
- Swinging, rhyming, dancing, running and drumming- all develop a child’s rhythm. Rhythm assists us as we walk, write, read and do most anything in life. If you have ever tried to sign your name writing the first letter slow… the next two letters fast… the next three letters slow… then finish your name writing the letters fast, you will discover how uncomfortable writing, without rhythm, can become. We cannot take a child’s hand and teach them rhythm. Rhythm must be experienced and refined over time through a variety of experiences. Our ears can listen to rhythm in the music we hear; but, with out letting our hands clap or our feet stomp we can’t create our own rhythms. With enough opportunity to experience and practice rhythms, we develop the skill that is critical in our learning to read, write, move and enjoy the world around us.
Play is the most natural, enjoyable and appropriate way for children to learn. Their bodies and brains are born ready to interact and play with the world around them. Without play, learning lacks the context and qualities that make learning pleasurable for children. A pleasure that when fostered will assist them in becoming life-long learners.