As I watched my son in swimming lessons today, he was fascinated as he pushed the water up over the lip of the pool and it trickled down the spaces between the tiles – a drain of some sort. It caused me to reflect on the importance of play on learning. Children of all ages learn by play. Younger children start the learning process playing on the living room floor, the sandbox or even during bath time. Learning capacity grows for older children as their world expands to include making a treehouse or some crazy go-cart using assorted toys in the yard. Take a moment and think back to some of your favorite childhood memories. I imagine those memories consisted of moments that you were engrossed in activity, while marveling at the wonders of the world. Was it exploring the nearby brook? Watching sticks and leaves float in the current? Or was it the accomplishment of building an amazing structure from blocks or Lego’s? Whatever it was, the opportunity for this free play provided long lasting memories and educational opportunities.
There is growing evidence that these experiences are vital to children’s growth. A toy having the Parent’s Choice Award designation does not ensure that it provides appropriate developmental opportunities. Children learn problem solving skills, social skills, self-regulation skills and self-confidence is gained as children are engaged in unstructured play. Children who learn to play creatively will grow into adults who can think for themselves and be creative in the workplace.
What this means for parents is that we need to allow our children to get dirty and make messes. Their science experiments or cooking experiments provide learning opportunities in physics and math. When they are engaged with others, social skills and negotiation skills are gained.
When we buy children gifts, we need to think about what toys will provide the most opportunity for open, unstructured play. These items include blocks, Legos, dolls, dress-up, and art supplies. Consider opportunities such as time in the woods, a field, or on a mound of dirt as wonderful experiences to engage child curiosity.
As we move into the new year I encourage all of us to find ways to increase our children’s opportunities for open, unstructured play and minimize the structured activities, tv time and computer time