As adults, our childhood may seem like it was a long time ago. Our to-do list drives us and we measure our worth on how productive we are. It can be tempting to push this way of thinking onto our children, but children aren’t just little adults. Children want, but also need, to play.
Play is a child’s work. Kids learn best through play and the benefits of play for kids are huge.
Sadly, schools are moving farther and farther away from play-based learning. Kindergarten looks more and more like first grade used to. Kids are expected to sit still for developmentally inappropriate lengths of time. In many schools, recesses have been shortened or even extinguished in favor of more time for instruction, usually driven by a desire to increase test scores. Even preschool, which used to be all play, is starting to more closely resemble an environment with little play that has a strong academic focused.
Last year, my youngest daughter was ready to enter preschool. Her older sisters had attended a wonderful play-based preschool (which they both graduated from being able to read) but sadly it had closed. I set off to find a play-based preschool. I toured at least ten and every last one used worksheets as a part of their curriculum. One even had weekly assessments and homework! The one we finally chose was the one with the fewest worksheets in their curriculum. When I talked to the teacher, she said that she gives worksheets once a day because so many parents request it, even though she’d prefer to do play-based only. Parents seem to feel that if they can’t see a worksheet at the end of the day that their child must not be learning. Nothing could be further from the truth!
Play Motivates: Play is intrinsically motivating for children. This means that, through play, kids learn more quickly, have longer attention spans, and achieve more through play than they can through any other means. When children learn through play, they learn to love learning.
Play Mirrors Their Life: Children mimic and make sense of their worlds through play. Watch a child play “school” and you’ll often hear many of the same phrases their teachers use. Watch a child play “house” and they’ll sound like their mom and dad. Kids use play to make sense of the world around them. They act out scenarios they have seen. They ‘practice’ through play. A child may be afraid of doing something or not have the skills to do it yet, but they practice it through play.
Play Increases Social Skills: Play is essential in helping kids develop social skills. This is not just young children, but children of all ages. Kids learn to initiate play with their friends, they learn to share, give and take, and compromise. They also learn to be assertive and improve communication with their peers.
Play Builds Self Confidence: Play builds kids confidence in themselves. Through play, they can pretend to be anything they want to be. They can imagine themselves in any situation and gain confidence to follow through.
Play Develops the Brain: Play makes connections in a child’s brain. It helps their brain grow and develop. Children who play are actually better able to learn than those who don’t play.
Play Helps Kids Stay Healthy: Play reduces obesity in children. Kids who play typically spend more time moving. They run, jump, and climb. When kids play, they develop both their gross and fine motor skills. Have you ever watched an occupational therapist in action? What do they do all day? They play with kids! Kids with developmental delays, Autism, or other disabilities can benefit from play as much or more than their typically developing peers.
Play Helps Kids learn Self-Control: According to Nancy Allard, Director of The Luma Center, play even can strengthen and impulse control and memory.
Play Helps Kids Manage Stress and Trauma: Play is a great way for kids to manage their stress. Kids get so engrossed in their play that they are able to forget their worries.
They can also process through trauma via play. This is why play therapy is so popular. When kids are playing, they often feel more comfortable and are more willing to talk and open up.
Play Builds Academic Skills: Kids can learn most skills through play that they are typically taught through direct instruction. For example, instead of a young child being given a writing assignment, they can play ‘restaurant’ and practice taking orders from customers.
Play Bonds Families: Have you ever heard the saying ‘The family that plays together, stays together?’ Play is a great way for parents to connect with their children and for kids to connect with each other. This is true for classes as well.
The benefits of play are hard to ignore. Maybe should emphasize this unstructured time and move away from worksheets.
By: Amy Curletto
Amy has been teaching for 12 years in grades K-2. She has a bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood and Elementary Education and also has endorsements in reading and ESL. Besides education, her other passion is writing and she has always dreamed of being a writer. She lives in Utah with her husband, her 3 daughters, and her miniature schnauzer. She enjoys reading, knitting, and camping.
The child who is ‘left behind’ most is the one who leaves school without transition readiness.