Play is so much more than a pastime. Research shows that play is the medium through which children learn to initiate, create, negotiate and understand the world around them. They develop competence, imagination and knowledge through play – and all this with joy and ease. David Whitebread, senior lecturer in psychology says he has a “quite a large suitcase full of evidence” to support the view that play-based informal learning is beneficial to young children.
Play kicks in very early, perhaps from the moment that a baby notices that the object that just went past her eyes was something to do with her (her hand). Emmi Pikler, the Hungarian pediatrician, emphasises the importance of independent play in a child’s development: “It is crucial that the child discover as much as possible on his own. If we assist him in accomplishing every task, we deprive him of the single most important aspect of his development. A child who achieves things through independent experimentation acquires an entirely different kind of knowledge than does a child who has ready-made solutions offered to him.”
How can parents and carers support the development of play? Here are four tips:
1) Where? It can be helpful to think of creating safe play areas for your child/children, even using room dividers if this supports them to play undisturbed by older or younger siblings. Think of Goldilocks: the play area should not be too big, or too small, but “just right”. Inside the area you can have everything laid out to the child’s liking.
2) With what? Simple objects invite complex play. You can start with little bowls, colanders, rattles, stacking cups, cloths, little mats, pots and pans, boxes, baskets, large shells, bean bags, something to climb over (if possible) and as your child gets bigger dolls, cloths, little blankets, pegs, wooden vehicles, animals, egg cups, pine cones, buckets, brooms, balls and bags.
3) When? If you would like your child to enjoy playing independently it’s best to give her that opportunity when she’s well rested and not hungry. A regular time of day for play will support her in developing the habit of settling into play easily.
4) How? Start by laying out some toys and sitting down with a cup of tea. Try showering your child with your warm presence without actually getting involved in the play. Your relaxed attention will be very nourishing and by holding back and trusting their ability to explore independently you give your child more space to develop their own play.
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