Friday, December 16, 2011

Play Is More Than Just Fun: 5 Skills Your Child Is Gaining

I recently read an article on the play versus learning dichotomy in early childhood education (and shared it with my facebook friends).  If you are not familiar with this topic, give it a read, but I'll try to describe it briefly. 

Should early childhood education programs focus their attention on play or direct instruction in "academic" areas like math and reading?  With the increased pressure for students in elementary schools to meet mandated standards, many educators worry that early childhood programs will place less value on play and focus their attention on skills needed to succeed on statewide tests and assessments.

The author of the article I linked to above argues that it shouldn't be an either/or dichotomy; that both play and direct instruction serve an important purpose in early childhood classrooms. 

And, I tend to agree.  Baby bookworm is not in a formal classroom, and will probably not be in one until she reaches preschool.  While we do many activities and lessons that have a clear learning agenda, I always try to give her time in the day to play.  I try to find a balance between "learning" and play.  And as I write this last sentence I see how strange this topic is....because play involves learning, too!!

What skills do children gain through play?  Here are just a FEW things.  This is not an all-inclusive list, but hopefully gives you an idea of the importance of play in the development of babies and toddlers.

1) Language Skills. 

When you and your child play "kitchen" together (or engage in any other type of pretend play) - think of all of the varied language that you use.  "Now, take the spatula and flip the pancake (child does the action).  OK, great.  Now pick up the chopping board over there behind the microwave.  We're going to chop up some fruit to have with breakfast." Pretend play (as opposed to playing with manipulatives such as puzzles) provides a fabulous way to expand your child's language skills because more varied language is often used. 

2) Pre-Reading Skills.

Try reenacting your favorite story.  Not only will it be fun, but you will be teaching your child the important connection between written and spoken language - which will help in learning to read.

3) Gross Motor Skills.

Playing at your child's favorite playground is a great way to get him to release all that energy and take a nice long nap.  True.  But, it's also a fabulous way to build gross motor skills.  All that running, jumping, and climbing (or crawling) is well-needed practice.  Throwing a ball or kicking one is also great for coordination and balance, too. 

4) Listening Skills.

Do you often sing playful songs together?  Babies and toddlers love to do fingerplays, or read books that have songs that go with them (see my recent post for an example). The bonus is that this type of play builds listening skills.

5) Social Skills.

While true joint play may not develop until preschool years, babies and toddlers are learning important prosocial behaviors early on.  For instance, young children learn to imitate their peers, recognize other children's expressions and feelings and imitate or identify them, and learn about turn taking and sharing.  Finally, play is a great way for a child to learn about conflict and how to resolve it. 

Given the importance of play in development of skills, how do you incorporate play into your child's routine?

Well, one way we have been trying to incorporate play in our lives, given the colder weather in our neck of the woods, is by visiting local indoor gyms or museums.

Recently, we discovered The Little Treehouse play cafe in Chestnut Hill, and have been spending our rainy and cold afternoons doing some play-based learning in the comfort of their modern-style play room.  The nice thing about this place is that it's incredibly baby and toddler friendly, but preschool-aged children would enjoy it as well.  There's a small slide, lots of pretend and manipulative toys, an adorable playhouse with lots of comfy pillows inside, and even some books.  Since it's a cafe, you can grab something to eat and let your child explore.  A nice concept, if you ask me.  It's even BYOB.  If you live in the greater Philly area, you should check it out, especially if you are looking to do some play-based learning in the company of others.

So my post cannot be complete, of course, without mentioning at least one book.  This week we came across a new book at the library called A Few Blocks by Cybele Young.  It's a tale of two kids and how they use their wild imaginations while they journey a few blocks to school.  I thought it was appropriate for this post - imagination makes even the simple things more enjoyable!

If you are interested in finding out more on play-based learning, you might want to check out these blogs: Irresistible Ideas for play based learning, Let the Children Play, or The Imagination Tree.

Have fun!  Play makes learning come alive!

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