What is play? Play is what children do when they find themselves with time, space, and encouragement to follow their own curiosity, interests, and whims in exploring the world around them. The might play alone, with friends, or even with their parents, but the focus is on the child’s self-motivation.
How does play benefit a child’s development? Let us count the ways.
1. Children learn how to make sense of, and master, their world. Adults take for granted the basics of our physical world, but it’s all new to children. Tactile free play teaches kids that wet sand is sticky, but it can be molded; that walking on ice is slippery, and snow tastes cold.
2. Play builds healthy and active bodies. Indoor time requires a certain amount of constraint, but healthy outdoor playing allows children to run, jump, skip, climb, kick, catch balls, and ride bicycles. These physical activities develop gross motor skills as well as healthy habits.
3. Play promotes imagination and creativity. Set free of schedules and plans, a child must rely on his or her own creativity, initiative, and imagination to make the best of what’s around them for entertainment.
4. Play improves decision-making skills. When that tower a child is building just keeps toppling, he or she will experiment with different configurations until they’ve figured out how to make it stay. This instinct to try, and try again, builds confidence, determination, and self-reliance.
5. Play improves social skills. Set loose in a shared playground, a child will soon learn that he’ll have more fun if everyone takes turns on the slide, shares the sandbox, and negotiates the rules of the games they’re playing.
6. Play improves verbal skills. Children in play are eager to express what they’re doing to their parents and each other. They try out new words, learn the names of things, and improve their storytelling skills.
7. Play is necessary for healthy brain development. Neuroscience studies have shown that children with lots of opportunities to play show significant improvement in language and cognitive development.
Dr. Maria Montessori recognized the importance of play as she studied the students in her classes, which is why one of the basic tenets of the Montessori Method is self-directed learning. Children learn best when they are free to seek their own passions and interests through the wonderful childhood joys of play.