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The Role of Play in Early Education

June, 2009
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Play BCISHolding a small twig in his hand, two and a half year old Sean Crawford pokes continuously at a tree trunk, concentrating on the sound that the twig makes with the hard surface. “What are you doing?” asks a companion.

"I’m poking at the tree with a stick!” replies Sean matter-of-factly, keeping his eye on the task. Other young children swarm around the nearby playground of the apartment complex, weaving around the jungle gym, furiously riding their tricycles, and bending intently over the large sandpit with plastic shovels and buckets. It may look like a typical scene in the compound’s play area, but for Sean and his friends, there is much more taking place than the passing of a lazy afternoon. 

The concept of “play” in early childhood (infancy to about 7 years old) can be undervalued in some circles, but experts agree that playtime at this age is an essential part of developing life-long skills as well as contributing to a child’s mental and physical health. Why is play so important? 

Play contributes to the development of children’s motor skills. During play, children learn about body coordination and balance. This is especially important in young children when they are just starting to discover how their bodies work. Running, jumping, throwing, rolling, and all kinds of large movements are building muscles and advancing their gross motor skills. They learn to use their hands and wrists to grasp, pinch, cup, and hold, which helps develop their fine motor skills. 

Play can help children have better physical and mental/emotional health. Children can eat and sleep better when they have had adequate amounts of free play. According to a 2009 study released by the Alliance for Childhood (USA), Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School, a lack of recess and play time can contribute to behavioral problems in children who do not have an adequate opportunity for stress release. In addition to the emotional implications, there are health factors to consider as well. According to the study, many health professionals see a link between the decline in active outdoor play and the rise in childhood obesity. 

Play can teach children social skills. Playing with others is a great way for children to learn how to interact with people. “One of the reasons I really value play in young children is that it gives them a way to test their understanding of the social world around them and to develop skills they’ll need in getting along with others,” shares Anne K. Soderman, Principal of 3e International. 

Play helps develop cognitive skills. “Children who enjoy play and have time to play become more imaginative, which leads later on to higher quality abstract thinking,” says Soderman. This view is shared by the American Academy of Pediatrics that published a report in January 2007 citing studies that show high quality “pretend” play may have a direct impact on children’s long-term capacities related to problem solving and social recognition, as well as academic areas such as literacy, mathematics, and science. 

Play contributes to the acquisition of language skills. Children can learn and practice receptive and expressive language and comprehension through playing with others. “Play supports the essential skills for literacy learning – speaking and listening are central to most play experiences and children have an opportunity to experiment and play with words,” explains Tracy Jochmann, Head of WAB’s Early Childhood Center. 

What may seem like play to children is actually a platform for greater learning. If you visit a well-equipped early education classroom, you should see many of the following play opportunities for students (as grouped by the National Network for Childcare in the United States): 

Active Play- Physical and active play is a natural and crucial part of childhood. Children will run and jump around, climb, play with their friends, and use free space to explore their environment and bodies. 

Dramatic Play- Often called playing “pretend”, children can spend lots of time engaged in make-believe activities. Classrooms are often equipped with clothing that can be used as costumes for children to dress up in, props for different pretend scenarios, and “home corners” where children can role play family settings, kitchen settings and other situations that they may see in the adult world. 

Creative Play- Drawing, creating, writing, building, and singing are all examples of creative play.

Social Play- According to developmental charts for infants and toddlers, children under 3 years old often like to play alone. It is only when they reach the age of 3 that they begin to appreciate playmates. Social play involves children playing together and can also encompass some of the other types of play. 

Mental Play- When children are discovering new things by themselves, they are engaging in mental play. They may be counting and reading, playing board games, picking up rocks from the sidewalk and starting a collection, or observing cause and effect by pouring things from containers and moving objects around. All of these activities use the power of their minds to explore and make connections about their actions. 

So how should parents of young learners support play? One way is to view play as something that contributes to a child’s education. Many times people will have misconceptions that play is extraneous and that academic learning should come first and at the cost of play, even in young children. However, play is an important component of learning. 

Another way to support proper play is to view different kinds of recreation and play in the right context. As summer break approaches, it can be tempting to sit the kids in front of the TV or hand them videogames to pass the time. Although these activities do not have to be forbidden, they should be meted out in moderation. “It is important that young children in particular have opportunities for play - both solitary and social. The amount of language developed through social play is invaluable, not to mention the social skills that are developed. It’s not possible to do this watching TV,” says Jochmann. 

Without the resources available in a classroom, children can still have plenty of play opportunities at home this summer. Collect some colorful clothes and interesting props (such as hats, paper crowns, and cheap jewelry) and place them in a designated “costume box” to foster dramatic play and creativity at home. Organize playgroups with neighborhood kids or classmates and meet in each other’s homes for easy board games or card games.

You can even make up your own games! An especially artistic parent can plan some simple art activities and invite kids over to work on an art project together. Even colorful paper scraps, glue, and crayons can go a long way in entertaining children. Have kids learn about measurements in a fun way by showing them how to help bake cookies. They can at least pour and mix batter or decorate the finished product. It may be getting too hot outside, but it can still be fun to arrange a group visit to the local park with a packed picnic. Remember to bring balls and kites and plenty to drink! If the weather is not right for outdoor play, look into indoor programs like MyGym (www.mygymchina.com) and Gymboree (www.gymboree.com.cn) to provide more structured social interaction and physical play for your little ones. For the artistically bent, book a group workshop at Beijing Color Studio where kids can spend time working on their masterpieces in a real art studio. 

While Sean may eventually tire of poking at the tree with a stick as the summer wears on, any of the other activities on the playground will also serve as a valuable learning tool, giving him the opportunity to add life-long skills and promote good health for his growing body and mind.

 By Vicky Li Yip

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