Early Intervention Experts Emphasize Play’s Importance in Early Childhood Development
What if there were a 100% free activity that was guaranteed to improve your child’s social, emotional, cognitive and physical development?
You’d likely be sure to make room in your schedule for work this important, right?
As it turns out, the activity that holds all of this potential isn’t work at all, but the opposite—play.
The late Fred Rogers of the show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” famously said, “Play is really the work of childhood.”
Play is important for children of all ages—and adults as well. But for children ages 0 to 3—the ages served by the Parent Education – Infant Development program (PE-ID)—play is foundational to the sequential building of muscle mass, social awareness and cognitive functioning that helps children stay on track developmentally.
PE-ID is an early intervention program for children from birth to 36 months. The program, run through the Rappahannock Area Community Services Board, serves families in Stafford, Spotsylvania, Caroline and King George counties, and the city of Fredericksburg.
PE-ID’s team of speech language pathologists, physical therapists, occupational therapists, early childhood education specialists and service coordinators works directly with parents and children in their homes to minimize developmental delays during the first three years of life.
Play Builds a Strong Foundation
“Play is the foundation for everything we do,” said Kelly Lefler, Occupational Therapist with PE-ID.
When a young child stacks blocks, bangs objects on different surfaces or continually moves around everyday household objects, PE-ID’s specialists see important brain- and muscle-building work under way.
“One of the very first steps in play is imitation,” said Suzanne Haskell, Speech Language Pathologist and PE-ID’s Program Coordinator. “Imitation is a foundational skill that you need to develop almost any other skill. Everything from motor skills to language—we learn them through imitation.”
Play is Hands-On and In-Person
Haskell said that imitation is learned best when children have physical objects in front of them, and another person playing with those objects nearby so they can watch and imitate.
“Imitating what they see on a screen is very different from somebody sitting in front of them with play-dough,” she said. “In a world where you can YouTube anything, it’s not the same as a person sitting with a child and playing. The skills don’t develop in the same way.”
The lure of technology has played a role in reducing the amount of time children spend in hands-on play, and in recent years, experts have sounded alarms about this trend. A growing emphasis on pushing academic skills at a younger age is also crowding out play.
A 2018 study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics noted that “an increasing societal focus on academic readiness … has led to a focus on structured activities that are designed to promote academic results as early as preschool, with a corresponding decrease in playful learning.”
But the social skills that come from that playful learning are what prepare children to listen to directions, pay attention, solve disputes with words and problem-solve as they get older.
Play First, and Academics Will Come
After the past two years of life lived amid the COVID-19 pandemic, many parents are reporting stress and worry about whether their young children have fallen behind due to missed preschool years or time spent on screens while parents were working from home with no childcare.
“Parents are feeling this huge amount of guilt that they haven’t done enough, or they haven’t done the right things” to help their young children developmentally throughout the pandemic, said Kelly Cook, Service Coordinator.
This can lead many parents to seek out things like flash cards and pre-academic skill-building activities that children 3 and under just aren’t ready for.
“Those academic things are going to come,” Haskell said, “but right now, just let a child be a child and play.”
A 2020 study published in the Journal of Cognition and Development found that block-building skills at age 3 are related to spatial skills at age 5. Having strong spatial skills was then linked to success in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields.
But before your child even picks up a pencil, he or she will depend heavily on the growth that play promotes.
“If kids aren’t on the floor as toddlers, standing up crouching down, moving toys around, playing, as opposed to sitting still with an electronic device in their hand, they don’t get a lot of the core strength development they need,” said Haskell. “That many times moves into speech delays because they don’t have the big muscle movements they need to be able to move on to that smaller muscle development required for speech.
Keep Play Simple
Kids don’t need a playroom overflowing with store-bought toys to be successful players. And they don’t need to get a calendar invite to play for a set amount of time on specific days.
“Play doesn’t have to be a delineated time limit where we are going to sit down and start and finish a task,” Lefler said. “The child needs opportunities to be able to explore and to be given things that they can play with.”
Those things can be items from around the house—which quite often are more interesting to kids than manufactured toys.
Lefler likes to save toilet paper tubes, which can be stacked, rolled, used as instruments, binoculars or other imaginative items.
Cook says that kitchen items such as bowls and spoons, or sticks and pebbles from the outdoors can capture children’s imaginations if they are given the freedom and time to explore.
Haskell suggests finding small moments of play throughout the day, such as letting a young child stir something you’re making in the kitchen for a few seconds.
PE-ID’s providers use this same philosophy in the work they do in families’ homes. They build play-based activities into family routines that are targeted to help children build the skills they need to minimize developmental delays.
“Our goal as early intervention providers is to make it not feel like work,” said Lefler. “We want to take the pressure out of it, and find activities that can help them achieve their goals within their family routines.”
To learn more, call 540-372-3561 or visit Rappahannockareacsb.org.