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The importance of play for a child's development
by Fiona Walker

"Children need the freedom and time to play. Play is not a luxury. Play is a necessity."

By Kay Jamieson, American Professor of Psychiatry

Children play for pure enjoyment! Limitless and unconventional, play expands the mind and cultivates creativity, especially when the players are involved in a make-believe world based on their own real life experiences.

It is through play that children learn to develop their imagination, flexibility of thought and adaptability. They learn to solve problems, both with objects and people, this involves creative thinking, perseverance and negotiation skills. During dramatic play or pretend play, children will use toys, an action, a word, blocks or even marks on paper to represent something else. It could be real experience or a powerful emotion. It is through play that children begin to see themselves as efficient and successful people, with useful ideas and skills.

Why Do Children Pretend?

First, because it's fun. We grown-ups dress up and fantasise too, when we go to parties, entertain friends at home and play a role at a wedding.

Second, it's experiential. Children know they must use trial and error to test their ideas. That is why dramatic play proceeds in fits and starts, with in-built failures as opportunities to stop and re-create the guidelines.

Third, there are no "rights" or "wrongs" because dramatic play is free of external rules except that the players must take it seriously. This is, after all, an opportunity to have fun doing what they enjoy most.

Finally, play is children's natural learning medium, and children love to learn. You may have noticed that when children play imaginatively, they function at their highest levels of competence, using complex expressive language and critical thinking skills as they learn to cooperate, solve problems and work with others.

For Learning

Although pretend play may look insignificant to adult observers, the learning that occurs is immediate, deeply insightful and lasting.

Through dramatic play children practise many different ways of representing reality, by creating symbols. They'll build homes, shops, trains, schools and zoos with whatever's on hand. These creations are symbols of representational thought, things that represent something else - an object, idea or event.

The significance to learning is that all later education is based on the assumption that a child has symbolic competence. For example, literacy and numeracy are about understanding symbols. How do children gain and practise symbolic mastery in the pre-school years? Through involvement in a wide variety of dramatic play activities in which they use everyday objects to symbolise something else: a cup becomes a telephone, a handkerchief makes a bandage, or a belt is used as a stethoscope, because the child using it has seen the real object in use.

Puppets and soft toys are used to symbolise real animals or people in a child's imaginary world. Often the first parent-child collaboration at dramatic play occurs when a toy needs to go to the doctor or a puppet has a conversation with an interested adult.

For Language

Research points to three necessary factors for enabling children's language to reach its full potential: dialogue with empathetic adults, an enabling environment for encountering language experiences, and imaginative play opportunities. All three are present at home when parents join their children in pretend play, and that's one great reason why families should play make-believe together.

Consider the numerous linguistic skills a doctor needs to express a medical opinion, a shopper and shopkeeper to resolve a dispute, or a family of mice to persuade neighbourhood cats to cooperate.

Self-motivated children at play cast themselves as doctors, shoppers, mothers, fathers, teachers, superheroes, bus drivers, pilots and animals, exploring ideas and concerns that interest them.

When children take on adult roles they practise the language they've heard around them. So, a child "playing" at being teacher will recreate the language patterns of the adults in his/her environment, using correct grammar and a wide range of advanced communication skills if he/she's been exposed to them.

For Social and Emotional Development

You'll notice that pre-schoolers also act out things they can't put into words: Distress at Mummy or Daddy going away, fear of monsters, the dark or going to school. Tensions and anxiety are played out in a let's pretend situation, and re-played again and again while the child grapples with understanding emotions.

When parents join in, taking a role in imaginary play, children learn important social rules, like turn-taking and fairness, from adults who "teach" by example. Outings to special places, when re-visited in dramatic play, become learning opportunities for "please", "thank you" and polite forms of address, especially if children take on adult roles as zoo-keepers, ticket sellers, waiters and guides.

When we join in their play we show our children how much we value them by giving them our most precious gifts: time, respect, consideration and loving attention. By listening, we let them practise talking, sharing ideas, turn-taking and trying out different roles. We allow them to learn in the way they intuitively know best, and to "rehearse" skills for life.

A Rehearsal For Life

As our children prepare for a fast-changing world, pause a moment to reflect on the skills they'll need to express themselves at their best and lead a fulfilled, happy and successful life. I think the package contains resilience, flexibility, autonomy, courage; creativity; critical thinking, confidence, empathy, imagination, humour and highly developed communication. A tall order!

Pressures and expectations of education encourage the cynic in all of us to view an early childhood education based on play, with suspicion. It's easier to perceive value in the old, traditional and more formal approach to learning rather than a fun-loving school with play at its centre. Beware! Controlled activities such as drills and work-sheets can be heavily adult-directed, de-motivating for active learners and lacking in both imagination and space for children to become creative, self-directed thinkers. While this approach is unlikely to empower children, their intuitive, undirected dramatic play fosters communication, collaboration and creativity, high-level thinking to solve problems, resolve differences and take responsibility.

Creating A Playful Space At Home

So, dramatic play is clearly worthwhile but won't it feel silly and awkward? The elaborate, imaginative play of 3 and 4 year olds grows out of a trusting, playful relationship with parents. Start this when children are infants and play will follow quite naturally, when parents allow children to lead them into dressing up and playing pretend.

If you find it hard to recapture the playfulness of childhood, an easy way in is to extend favourite stories by taking on character roles from a book you've just shared. Also remember that play isn't just something children do. When a Chinese philosopher was asked about the meaning of civilisation, he said that all of human education is about one thing; recapturing the mind of a child. The Institute for Play explains this beautifully:

"Learning through play means trying things this way and that, and then perhaps standing on your head and trying them again. It means staying loose, changing your perspective, trying the intuitive instead of the logical and thinking outside whatever box you might be in. It is peppered with humour, motion, questions, ideas and theories to be tried out. It produces unexpected discoveries. It's a tool scientists use in their research and it's a big reason why research scientists love what they do."

The ideal context for learning language and life skills is the simplest to achieve: at home, as a family. So go on, have fun and PLAY!

Setting Up A Dramatic Play Space

You'll need:

• Nothing elaborate or expensive!

• Books, stories and poems to stimulate ideas: Read, talk and extend them into dramatic play featuring characters and events from your favourites.

• A dressing-up box, full of old clothes, jewellery, hats and bags (Old skirts make wonderful capes and cloaks; handkerchiefs, scarves and scraps of cloth become bandanas, bandages and slings)

• A box of exciting objects to use as props: Old phones, bus tickets, train passes, obsolete calculators, keyboards and food packaging all have numerous uses in children's play.

• Art equipment to make masks and anything else you don't have available

• Large cardboard boxes to become counters and hide-aways

• Lengths of cloth and some clips to hold them together to create camps and dens

• Time to spend with your children

• Space that you're happy to leave a little messy

• Phones that can be ignored

• Willingness to re-learn how to play and have fun

Fiona Walker is the Principal Director of Julia Gabriel Education. She holds a Masters in Early Childhood Education and is a qualified Montessori teacher with more than 20 years of experience in providing quality education for young children.

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