What is "play"?
Child development experts and psychologists define play as everything that a child does instinctively. Children are “programmed” by nature to explore the world around them because that is the way they learn about themselves and their surroundings and acquire the necessary physical, mental and emotional skills. This exploration takes many different forms depending on the age, ability, personality and surroundings of a child.
In other words “play” is not just playing with cars or dolls but essentially every activity your child performs from blowing raspberries to exploring the contents of a kitchen or wardrobe drawers, to smearing lunch over the table, to scribbling on the walls etc. This means that even very young babies play. As children grow up, more of the play becomes deliberate and more structured and complex as when children play “mummies and daddies” or cook imaginary meals or develop stories when playing with a castle and a set of knights.
Why is play important?
A human brain at birth is only about a third of its eventual size and keeps actively growing into the early teens. The most rapid growth in the size of the brain and the number of connections within each half and between the left and right halves of the brain occurs between birth and three years old. Every new experience – touching snow or sand or mud, tasting new food, hearing different types of music - massively develops your child’s brain. It is important to remember that it is not just special “educational” videos and toys that develop your child’s brain.
According to research, each time a child hears, touches, tastes or smells, a signal is sent to the brain which magnifies the connections between the brain and nerve cells by 25 times. The greater variety of play, the greater magnification of connections. The more activities are repeated, the stronger the connections become. The importance of increasing connections between the brain and nerve cells is that the more connections there are the easier it becomes for a child to acquire new skills. It is a virtuous circle and it is true not just for children but for adults also.
Children have a big advantage over adults – since almost every experience is new it will form new connections. Most adults have a more limited range of new experiences and so in order to significantly increase the number of internal connections in the brain you would have to learn a foreign language or a musical instrument or learn to ski or play chess – something very challenging and different from what you normally do.
How do I help my children to learn through play?
So many factors influence the development of your child that it does not make sense to try to keep up with the Jones’ child – it is much better to get to know your children through playing with them and doing things they enjoy.
The key to learning is fun. There are so many ways to learn colours, shapes, letters and numbers, counting, reading and writing. If your little boy is mad about cars, for example, just think how he can learn colours, even some subtle shades by observing the passing cars or in a supermarket car park, while number plates and make names provide opportunities for letter and number recognition and so on.