Let Them Play

“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning.
But for children, play is serious learning.”
-Fred Rogers

This is my favorite quote about play because it is so true! Playing is not just a way for kids to spend time and have fun; We now know that play has an important purpose in cognitive development. More and more research is coming out that shows children learn best when they are active and engaged. Play has been found to improve language, creativity, problem solving, math, social skills, emotional regulation, motivation for learning, and fine and gross motor skills. Research has also shown that children who are taught through guided play have additional academic benefits (Weisberg et al, 2013).

However, even with research highlighting the benefits of play, parents and schools are continuing to promote and teach pre-academic skills to children at early ages. We think our kids need to be readers at the age of four. We push our two year olds to know all of their letters, numbers, colors and shapes. Unfortunately, in order to cram in all of the academic skills necessary to meet state standards, opportunities for play such as centers and recess times are decreasing at alarming levels- which means our children are missing out on critical natural and play based learning that helps them develop important life skills.

But why? Why are we, as a society, pushing these skills that many of us know are not developmentally appropriate? It likely stems from a simple desire of wanting our children to succeed. Of course we want our children to thrive in school, what parent wouldn’t? BUT… This should not come at a cost. Kids need the opportunity to be kids. That means playing, getting dirty, having fun, socializing, and being able to explore and learn while having fun.

In addition to this push for pre-academic skills, major toy companies are marketing electronic toys that light up, talk, or teach letters and phonics that at first glance seem to benefit our children. However, as The American Academy of Pediatrics states in a recent article, these toys take out the imagination and interactive component that non-electronic, more traditional toys provide- which is key to learning how to play.

So, armed with this knowledge, what should we do? Easy… We play! We interact with our kids by choosing toys and activities that are developmentally appropriate, and we can even structure our play to increase learning. In order to bring back play, it’s important to consider the different types of play, what ages each type of play is appropriate for, the best toys or items to use to learn from this play, and what adults can do to facilitate each kind.

Functional Play

Functional play occurs when children play with toys in a purposeful manner and/or in a way for which they were intended. This type of play begins to develop in early infancy and should be clearly evident by a child’s first birthday. Examples include cause and effect toys like pop up or light up toys, pushing or crashing cars, building with blocks, setting up a doll house, and playing appropriately on playground equipment. Functional play is important because it stimulates brain development, develops motor skills, begins to establish imagination, and builds persistence and adaptability. Functional play also provides a foundation for planning play actions and the ability to follow through by either implementing or changing plans as needed, which are key executive functioning skills. An important part of the development of functional play is that a child should not often engage in non-functional play. Non-functional play occurs when a child uses items in unexpected or unusual ways without a clear play based purpose. This can also occur when a child plays functionally with toys, but in a manner that is repetitive, or the same way each time. Examples of non-functional play include: lining up toys, focusing on parts of toys such as spinning wheels on cars, repeatedly organizing toys or other items or putting them in/taking them out of something, preferring sensory aspects of toys (such as looking closely or listening to sounds of toys), prefering to play with items that are not toys, labeling items or colors without playing, or setting up toys for play scenarios but not following through with play. If a child engages in non-functional play frequently, it can be a sign of atypical development and usually necessitates further evaluation. Parents and teachers can encourage functional play by modeling appropriate play while talking about what the adult or child is doing. “The cars crashed!”, “I am holding the baby”, or “the dinosaur is roaring!”.

Sensory Play

Sensory play can be any play that involves the senses. This type of play allows children to explore, create, play, and engage in experiential learning through their sense of sight, smell, touch, taste, and sounds. Using senses in learning and play can stimulate one’s brain in many different areas to maximize learning. Sensory play can also have additional fine motor benefits as well as have a calming effect on some children that are easily overstimulated. Sensory learning and play begins in early infancy and can continue throughout one’s lifetime. Just as a specific smell can bring back a vivid memory, a child can access information stored in their brains easier when they have learned with multiple modalities. Examples of sensory play can include: sensory bins, water tables, sand tables, play-doh, kinetic sand, cooking, science experiments, and so much more! Adults can guide learning in sensory play by commenting about things the child hears, smells, tastes, sees, and feels. Additionally, adults can talk about what children are doing to increase language skills, “pour the water, now it’s full”, “mix the batter”, or ask them to make predictions, “What do you think will happen if… I predict…” Sensory play is a great way to introduce pre-academic skills, such as writing in sand, counting items as you manipulate toys, measuring quantities, and learning positional words such as in/under/on. Super Simple has more great ideas to promote sensory play here.

Creative or Symbolic Play

Creative play involves using an object or toy in a novel way that sparks one’s imagination and allows self expression in inventive ways. Symbolic play occurs when a child pretends an item is something else, such as a block is a car or a blanket is snow. This can be extended to play with creative actions (such as pretending to feed characters, that a train can fly, or giving characters dialog) and using one’s imagination in play without concrete items (pretending the air above one’s head is outer space, or that one is swimming without water). Creative play has many benefits as it helps children build confidence, independence, and develops problem solving skills. Additionally it can help children understand and express emotions, increase understanding of others’ point of view, and develop an understanding of group dynamics, all of which are critical early social skills. Early examples of pretend play begin to develop between 12- 18 months of age and can include feeding a baby doll, barking like a dog, pretending a sock is a hat, or pretending to talk on a phone. As children reach the age 2-3, they should begin expanding their creative play by creating simple problems or play scenarios such as saving a hurt duck, building a house or train station out of blocks or magnets, or cooking food in a pretend kitchen. Creative play expectations and abilities increase as children get older and progress in this area should be seen over time. Parents and teachers can support creative play by modeling creative actions as well as giving children ideas or directions to make their play more inventive. For example, “Put the horse in the barn and make him eat”, or simply suggest, “the sheep is hungry.” Parents can also provide leads for play and then ask the child “what should we do next?” Toys that promote pretend play include play kitchens, blocks, barn/animal sets, action figures, barbies, and baby dolls.

Dramatic Play

Dramatic play occurs when children pretend that they are a character, animal, or other item. This type of play should also increase in complexity and creativity as children get older. This play is important because it increases creativity and imagination, helps improve language skills by building vocabulary, promotes social skills, and builds executive function abilities. Younger children, between the age of 12 and 18 months may pretend they are an animal or dinosaur. They might run (or crawl!) around making animal sounds or eat out of a bowl as if they were a pet. They might “choo choo” like a train or make car sounds while playing. Most kids at this age will also enjoy dressing up as characters in costumes. By 2-3, children will add some more creative elements and problems into their play, and by 4-5 years of age, children should be able to engage in extensive dramatic play. Preschoolers may pretend to be doctors or veterinarians seeing patients. They may pretend to teach a class or that they are a superhero saving the world. By preschool, these play scenarios will generally have rules and expectations such as “don’t throw food at a restaurant” and “babies don’t talk, they cry!”. These scenarios will also increase in the length of time children spend engaging in them, lasting longer and longer as they get older. Dramatic play is an important step in social skill and executive function development as it prepares children to solve real life problems. Many teachers are adding dramatic play centers into their classrooms and are using this to support academic skills. An example could be a restaurant theme: Children can plan out their restaurant- What kind of food will we serve? What should the restaurant be called? Who should be servers/cooks/customers? They can practice writing skills when making a menu (or taking orders), and reading skills when ordering food. Ask children to predict what might happen, will it go smoothly? What will be the most difficult part? You can also work on math while adding up the bill and paying with play money. They will need to use social and language skills when acting out their play and some children can even be given “problems” to present (my food is cold, this isn’t what I ordered) to help others further problem solve. Some children may need support when engaging in this type of play, and it is okay to verbalize an appropriate thought process or help them go through the motions of play. The best thing an adult can do to support this is to engage with kids- jump in and play along, add more ideas to play or give the child an opportunity to expand the play by making lead in suggestions such as “Now we should….” Toys to promote this type of play are widely available such as ice cream shops, toy kitchens, toy workbenches, grocery stands, vet sets, and costumes. Super Simple has a free printable restaurant themed dramatic play set that I would HIGHLY recommend for parents, teachers, and therapists!

You can further promote academic skills by having children narrate (either verbally or in writing) what happened in their play using sequencing words such as “first, then, next, and last”. They can answer ‘wh’ questions, describe the items in play, or could be used for math problem solving skills. The opportunities for learning are limitless in play, we just need to support and guide our children in this fun and engaging way!

Now that you know just how important play is for academic success AND ways to encourage the different types of play, let’s take a stand to bring back play into our homes and classrooms!

Weisberg DS, Hirsh-Pasek K, Golinkoff R. Guided play: where curricular goals meet a playful pedagogy. Mind Brain Educ. 2013;7(2):104–112

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