So often, adults make the mistake of thinking that play is a waste of time for kids.
They encourage their children to spend their time learning, instead of wasting time playing and having fun.
They look for early childhood experiences that provide the most rigorous academic training to ensure the child’s superiority upon entering kindergarten.
When touring daycare facilities and preschools, they ask about structured learning activities, but yet they don’t question how often their child is allowed to just play.
When picking up their children from daycare and preschool, they see children in free play and say, “But I’m not paying you to let my kid play; I’m paying you to teach him something!”
Adults think that play is a waste of time because they view play from an adult perspective, not a child’s. To an adult, spending time playing games and sports might seem like a waste of time when there are countless chores to be done around the house or a big project due at work on Monday. And the reality is that once adulthood kicks in, adults have to be willing to sacrifice some of their fun to make sure to fulfill the responsibilities that come with adulthood.
But for kids, play is much different. Play isn’t a way to escape all of the responsibilities of childhood (i.e learning), although it can be, and that’s ok! Instead, play is the way that kids learn and grow all of those skills that they’ll need in their life. Without play, or with too little play, kids will actually develop those skills slower, and may even be at a deficit when kindergarten comes.
And there’s three main reasons why…
During the early childhood years, before kids develop a detailed vocabulary, play is the method by which they communicate. If you ask your two-year-old if she is hungry, she might not be able to answer yes or no because she might not be able to connect the right word with the right feeling inside her stomach. Instead, screams, kicks and punches may emerge in the word’s place as an effort to relay what she is feeling.
However, that same child will have no difficulty acting out a scene in which she feeds a bottle to her baby, despite her hungry state. This is because the cognitive aspect linked with her ability to verbalize what her body is experiencing has not developed enough yet for her to answer your questions, while the cognitive aspect required to play out experiences related to what her body is experiencing has already developed.
Without play experiences, the child is unable to communicate through play what she is experiencing or has experienced in her life. She isn’t given the opportunity to learn the connection between her words and her experiences and she doesn’t get the opportunity to practice what it means to act those out in the real world.
She’ll learn this gradually over time, practicing what she is supposed to say and do in these situations in order to get her needs met. However, her skills will be improved with interactions from adults that help her to understand the scenes that she is playing out. For example:
It’s about lunch time and Rosie is playing in her toy room with her dolls. Rosie’s mom watches Rosie as she sets the dolls up at the table and brings them each a piece of food and places it on their plates. Rosie’s mom enters the room and says, “Your babies must be feeling hungry in their tummies, just like you!” as she points to Rosie’s tummy. “That feeling right inside your tummy means that you’re ready to eat some lunch. What do you say? Should we go eat?”
This play experience helps to teach Rosie that the feeling she has inside her stomach right this instant is a hungry feeling, and the hungry feeling means she should ask for food.
Yes, this seems so simple and obvious to adults, but kids truly have no understanding of this concept at a young age. Just look at the kids who are terrorizing their classroom 20 minutes before lunch time or acting out just before bed time. Young children haven’t yet connected the feelings they feel with the words they need to describe them and the actions that need to be taken to resolve them. With play experiences like this, they are now able to practice the skills they’ve been taught.
When parents are looking for child care programs with academic components, they are doing so because they want their children to know all of the skills and knowledge that they are supposed to know by kindergarten. They want their children to be familiar with each letter of the alphabet and the sound that it makes; they want their kids to know the shapes, colors and numbers and to be able to identify them at random whenever asked.
What they don’t understand is that a program that emphasizes teaching of these concepts only—without free play—is limiting the children’s opportunity to practice the skills that they’ve been taught. This is because the information that has been presented to them is simply information until the child is given the opportunity to practice the skill and see what it looks like when placed within the context of his world.
The information doesn’t become a part of the child’s skillset unless he is given the opportunity to practice it; and, if he isn’t given the opportunity to practice the information before it escapes his memory (which for a child is a very short timeframe!) then most of the information is lost forever, or until the adult tries to teach it again (which usually results in asking, “How many times do I have to tell you!?”)
Think about this from your own perspective. If you attend a conference for your profession—say you’re a physical therapist—are you more likely to know exactly how to manipulate the muscles by listening to someone talk about how he does it, or by practicing the skill on someone else and receiving some feedback? At your next day at work, will you feel more comfortable implementing this technique if you’ve listened to the speaker talk about what to do or if you already practiced it multiple times on a real human being?
When children are allowed to have free play after a structured teaching technique or dyadic teaching opportunity, they are likely to incorporate what they have just learned into their play immediately. And when they are playing, they are practicing that skill they’ve just learned and solidifying that lesson into their own personal experiences. That experience—the play experience—is what helps them to perfect the skill they were just taught, not the teaching process itself.
Children spend a lot of time during the day learning how the world works and how they are supposed to act in it. They are learning A LOT of new stuff every single day at a rate what would be overwhelming to you. Don’t you think they deserve a break from all of that work to just have fun and enjoy themselves?
They have the rest of their lives to work and to reminisce about the joys of their childhood, so don’t take those special moments away from them by expecting that they fill their time with academic activities. Doing so will be counterproductive and will actually make it harder for them to achieve the skills that you want them to.
If kids want to play something that helps them to incorporate skills into their skillset, then great, but if they want to play something that doesn’t appear to have any developmental benefit to them at all, just let them do it! Set a limit for yourself that you’ll guide and instruct their play sometimes (like the example I offered in #1) but that you’ll allow them to be spontaneous, creative and in charge of their play sometimes, too.
Play is fun, no matter how imaginative or realistic it is, and with all of the hard work they are putting into learning everything there is to know about the world they deserve a break to just enjoy the fun that comes with play.
Allow them to have fun, and—if you dare—consider joining in the fun with them!
So, in the future, resist the temptation to view a child’s play as a waste of time. Research suggests that young kids who are offered more opportunities to play and guide their own learning will achieve better grades in school than those who are forced to sit and listen or watch the teacher teach a lesson.
It turns out that just letting kids be kids helps those kids grow into better adults!