In an increasingly competitive educational environment, parents are rightfully concerned about giving their children every possible advantage in the academic world. But when kids could be taking lessons in Mandarin Chinese, filling out sight-word worksheets, and learning how to use a microscope, it’s easy to wonder: Who needs playtime?
The Purpose Of Play
There’s a reason why formal education starts at the age of five or six. By then, most children have passed enough social, cognitive, language, and motor skill development milestones so they can focus, understand, and execute more complex tasks they might not embrace on their own.
Younger children, on the other hand, can easily grow frustrated when forced to focus for long periods of time, commit to repetitive tasks, or to learn concepts beyond their cognitive ability. Caught up in drills, they can become angry and rebellious, which is counterproductive to learning.
Free play isn’t just for preschoolers to blow off steam between academic sessions, either. Curiosity is an engine for learning, and in free play research has shown that young children develop the following skills:
- Language. In order for children to engage with the greater world, they need to know the names of the objects they play with. The have to learn to communicate with teachers as well as fellow students. They listen, repeat, and grow their vocabularies.
- Mathematics. Playing with blocks, puzzles, shape-sorters, and simple board games teaches numbers, counting, pattern recognition, and problem-solving skills, all strong mathematical fundamentals.
- Social Skills. Sitting in a row of chairs doesn’t teach a child how to socialize. Socialization happens when they share toys, take turns, negotiate the rules of a game, take responsibility for bumping into others, and develop empathy for other’s feelings.
- Gross And Fine Motor Skills. Swinging on monkey bars, climbing ladders for slides, working the see-saw with a friend, and kicking a ball in team sports teaches gross motor skills in a far more entertaining way than sit-ups or jumping jacks. A child hones fine motor skills better when she’s drawing a picture rather than forced to kill-and-drill the Palmer method.
- Cognitive and Problem-Solving Skills. The free-for-all of safe and supervised play allows children to engage their curiosity about the world, testing and experimenting with the resources available so they can discover what they can do, rather than being told how to do it.
An ever-growing body of research in early childhood education has shown that learning happens best when kids are mentally active (not tired), engaged (not distracted), socially interactive (with peers and teachers), and when what they’re learning is meaningful in the moment.
Sounds a lot like play.