Will you play with me? The importance of play in learning.
When I was four years old my parents enrolled me into the same preschool my two older siblings attended. Eager to attend school, I was THAT sibling! Up early on school days with my older brother and sister sending them off, waving goodbye, waiting for my turn. I was scared to leave my mom but also super excited to finally go where the big kids go. Much of this time in my life IS a bit fuzzy, but my parents have told me this story so many times, I feel confident filling in the blanks between what I actually recall, and what they have told me. After starting this well-established preschool, that I should have been sure to love, I came home day after day in tears and unhappy. They taught all the basics; colors, numbers and letters, yet I came home daily in tears, saying that all I wanted to do was sing/talk/play and my teachers were always telling me I wasn’t allowed to, or it wasn’t the time.
At four years old I didn’t understand why I couldn’t sing and be happy the way I wanted. My mom felt awful I was so sad. She always said, that to see me, at four years old, feel the way I did about school, didn’t seem right to her. She then found me a new school to tour. From the second I walked in and saw the class I wanted to stay. She even had a hard time getting me to leave that day. It was a no brainer, this was the preschool for me. As my parents would report, I flourished there. I came home happy and was able to play, sing, dance and be creative, all the while learning the essentials I needed for kindergarten. I never fell behind, even though I spent most of my days in the preschool’s dramatic play area.
I remember very little about that first school. All I can recall are the dreary colors and being unhappy. I remember SO much more about the second school. I remember the way the classroom was set up, where the dramatic play area was, the door in the back that lead straight to the outside playground. I remember where we performed our school play and the brightness coming from the windows. I remember the two kids I loved playing with, making a blue care bear out of construction paper, and how in our class play I was Mary Poppins and sang ‘Spoon Full of Sugar’ like I was Julie Andrews. I even remember standing next to the boy in the hat with the animal tail who played Davy Crockett. I was happy.
Being a preschool teacher for the last seven years and having a three-year-old daughter, I now understand better why I was so unhappy. I also recognize just how fortunate I was that my parents understood how important happiness and play were to my learning. My mom, who was also a teacher for many years, understood, what looks like play to most adults, for kids, is actually learning. Children need to connect to their world and attach meaning to the information being presented. It’s not enough to tell a child information through direct instruction. If they don’t feel any connection to it, they may not retain it.
So, to all the adults out there who think their child is wasting time playing with toys instead of learning, I’m here to tell you that play is how children learn and internalize information. To them, play and learning are the same. Direct instruction has its place, but play should not be undervalued. Playing in early education has many positive impacts on development, social, cognitive and language.
When I play with my daughter or observe her playing with others, I learn so much. I learn about what she knows, what her interests are, how she absorbs the world/information around her and how she makes sense of it all. I find out in the least stressful environment, where she is feeling most herself and most comfortable, about all the colors, letters and numbers she knows. She is not put on the spot or pressured to recall something simply because I’m testing her. She speaks to me with ease and gives me information freely and with excitement. You can obtain some of your best assessments of progress and knowledge during free play with your child or watching them free play with their friends.
When a child is playing with others, they are using language to converse and create stories of their own or re-create stories that are familiar to them. As a teacher we try to aide and guide children in their play through things like:
- Encouraging children to write shopping lists, menus, maps, checklists
- Introduce new vocabulary and encourage new word use through play and visual cues.
- Having labels
- Using children’s artwork for discussion and labeling their work
By using their social skills and playing with other children, they are given the opportunities to build on their skills and practice. Children learn:
- To share
- Take turns
- Role play in respectful ways
- Practice back and forth conversations in these roles
Along with these wonderful social and language skills, children also learn to use their smarts, their cognitive skills:
- They problem solve
- Learn about cause and effect
- Use their imaginations
- Try new things and use trial and error to complete a task
Emotionally, they have the chance to practice processing their feelings and can use scenarios, props, toys etc. to act out their feelings and work through them. They also discover what their interests are, their passions and what they excel in. It's so important for children to have opportunities to explore many activities and maybe find out just what they like or what they are good at.
There are so many benefits to free play. The next time your child invites you to play tea party, or restaurant, or any other game, remember they are inviting you to learn and explore with them. Take the time to bond through play and help your children learn. Have them put on that apron and let them practice writing your order, take turns listening and speaking. Draw their attention to the words and pictures on the menu and help them count their pretend money. Incorporate their learning into their play in whatever way you can think of. Create an environment where play is educational, yet meaningful and fun! Children love to play, and we have the opportunity to use their play to help them flourish.