By, Angela Copperwheat
Director, Carmel Presbyterian Weekday School
Do you ever feel like you are not doing enough to prepare your child for school? Are you teaching them the “ABC’s” and “1,2 3’s”? Are you scheduling them for soccer and dance and lots of other planned activities? You know that Johnny next door can count to 20 and he is only 3! How high can your child count?
If these are the questions you are asking yourself I really hope you keep reading because I have some information you might find very valuable. Talk to any expert in Early Childhood Education and they will tell you that what your child really needs to be doing is PLAYING! Yes, I said it, and I know you have heard it before, but I promise you it is true. The benefits of play for our children far outweigh the benefits of “academics”. Actually, to make it even more simple, play is the “academics” of childhood.
There are different kinds of play. There is intentional play. This is when a parent or a teacher provides a child with a certain toy or game to direct their play. There is a specific skill you are teaching. Intentional play is the type of play children engage in the most. Intentional play is wonderful, and it suits a very essential purpose. It is like homework for a first grader. Intentional play is how your 4 year old will learn sequencing, patterning, 1:1 correspondence and other very important pre-reading, pre-writing, pre-math skills they need.
Another form of play is free play. Children are not given directions. No goals. They are simply allowed to play and imagine and decide on their own what they want to do. Both forms of play are ESSENTIAL to a child’s development! Children learn by doing. They learn by experimenting and trying and hands on activity.
Now, you may be reading this thinking – duh! I know children need to play. My question is, do you truly understand the benefits of play for your child? My guess is you understand intentional play very well. That is much easier to grasp and really almost self-explanatory. I mean, there are clear objectives and goals laid out for the activity, so you get it.
Well, do you know the true benefit of FREE PLAY? This is when a child is in charge, with no direction from adults. The child determines her own goals and creates a plan to reach that goal. Research shows that a decline in free play during the preschool years is having a very adverse affect on children later in life. That is right – if they don’t play enough when they are 3 and 4 they can struggle for the rest of their life. I know that sounds a bit dramatic, but sadly it is so true.
OK, here is the technical part. When children are given the opportunity to engage in self-determined, self-guided play, they are developing executive function. Executive function is a cognitive ability that refers to the brain’s capability of accessing and coordinating all of its functions to achieve a goal. Components of executive function include memory, cognitive flexibility and self-regulation. Without a properly developed executive function, you will have a hard time self-regulating your thoughts and emotions. It will be hard for you to stay focused, determine goals and, plan strategies to achieve your goals. This is basically a fancy way to say that a lack of executive function will affect your ability to carry out basic activities essential to every day life.
Have I peaked your interest, or are you reading this thinking “what a croc!”? How exactly do children gain this most crucial cognitive ability just by playing? Well, I do not have enough time to fully explore every element of executive function with you, but I will give you just one very simplified example with the hopes of intriguing you enough to Google executive function when you finish reading.
Think back to when you were a kid. This is before the world became the scary place it is and you were actually allowed to be outside, with your friends, unsupervised. You decide you want to play “Duck, Duck, Goose”. Tommy doesn’t want to. He wants to play “Freeze Tag”. There is no adult there telling you what to do. What happened? Did you talk about it? Solve a problem? Compromise? Did Tommy get mad and storm away? If he did, how long did he stay away before he decided to return and join back in? There are several different ways that scenario can go, but no matter how it ends, there is soooooo much learning going on! That is real world, applicable every day of your adult life kind of learning! It may sound inconsequential, but executive function is a crucial cognitive skill that constantly directed, over-scheduled children of today are not learning. Now, I am not saying your four year old child should be outside unattended, but they should definitely be allowed to be in charge of their own play.
OK, there is your little teaser, and my little rant for the day. Now, it is up to you to investigate all the truly wonderful and essential benefits of play. I only touched on one. I could keep going with my “lecture”. I could discuss the negative effects of pushing “academics” on our children too early, but if I get on that soap box, I will have a hard time coming down. My only hope is that after reading this, you will have a better understanding of the importance of play for your child. You won’t feel so bad that he can’t count to 20 at the age of 3. Remember, children NEED to play to learn the crucial, fundamental skills for later in life. Preschool children need play more than they need “academics”. The skills developed through play lay the foundation for academics. If children are not given enough play time, the “academics” are going to suffer later! Don’t push too hard, too fast! Allow them to be kids and let them play! It may not seem like it now, but in the long run you will be very happy you did! And, more importantly, so will your child!