When you think of children learning, what comes to mind? Books, tablets, brightly glowing computer screens? Pop quizzes, semester-long projects, book reports?
How about jumping in a puddle? Dressing up at preschool? A game of hide-and-seek with some friends. Could those also be described as "learning?"
Absolutely. Play is a crucial part of how children, especially young children, learn. According to one of the leading authorities on young children, the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAYEC), there are tremendous benefits to playtime:
The impulse to play comes from a natural desire to understand the world. This play impulse is as strong as your child's desire for food or sleep. It is this intrinsic motivation that allows a child to regulate her own feelings and desires in order to keep playing. Because children eventually find it more important to be part of play with their friends than to satisfy their own wants and needs at that moment, children learn self-control. And self-control has been shown to lead to success in later years, especially in today's information age, where distractions are part of daily life.
Play is essential for the physical health of children as well. They are building gross motor skills as they climb the slide or ride a tricycle. The preschoolers' muscles are ready for action and sitting for long periods of time is especially difficult — they need to move! Fine motor skills are honed as they connect LEGO® bricks, string beads, or pick up pom-poms with tweezers — without this type of play, they will lack the muscle development needed for writing. Parents helping in the classroom may worry that their child is not doing "school work," but we assure them that they are working hard — at play!
"After over a decade of spending my days with 4 and 5 year olds, I see the undeniable power of play for children," says Wendy Cannon, local teacher/program director at Fredericksburg Cooperative Preschool and Preschool Curriculum Coordinator at The Doctor Yum Project. "Kids need to move, explore, and interact with peers in play situations. These interactions with peers in play are invaluable for social and emotional development. Communication with peers builds necessary skills for getting along with others, learning to share and developing empathy."
Pull your kids away from the workbooks and screens and encourage outdoor play. Build an indoor fort on a rainy day, or pull out the Play-Doh and start creating. Invite a friend over and help both children grow in sharing, learn to cooperate with others and develop communication skills. There are so many options for engaging your child in meaningful and educational activities outside the parameters of curricular learning. For more ideas, see the sidebar to this article.