Even though a newborn cannot distinguish between dawn and dusk, ensuring a set routine for feeding, nap, playtime and body care can be a great step.
Play is a fundamental building block of child development but it is also so much more than that. For a child, play is second nature. It is an integral part of one’s childhood, a way to socialize and connect with the world around them. Additionally, it also acts as a way for them to understand themselves vis-à-vis the world that surrounds them.
Play begins the moment that we are born. A young child has an innate desire to explore and understand their environment. While playing, they use their curiosity and creativity to try things, test the possibilities around them. Naturally, they learn from these experiences. It starts from infancy. Babies babble to gain control of their voices and communicate their basic needs. Later, they use their limbs and senses to make sense of their surroundings, all while playing.
Play not only helps them to gain control of their movements and needs, it also helps them exercise their cognitive facilities. From role playing and using their imagination to create, all the way to solving complex puzzles, play is a conduit for the development of children’s brains and bodies. What starts as a newborn evolves and flourishes to complex and enjoyable games that we continue to play well into our adulthood.
We have decades of research that unequivocally state that play supports healthy mental, social and physical development for children. Wherever and whenever play happens, it supports 3 fundamental aspects of development for young children: Play promotes healthy communication and builds relationshipsWhen a child engages in playful interactions with a guardian, adult [like playing peek-a-boo] and older children, their brains are firing away, learning to process language, form responses, and build emotional connections with others.
Play reduces stress and builds resilience- Especially today, as our youngest children emerge from the collective adversity they have faced during the pandemic, researchers across the world agree that play is one of the best ways to promote resilience following periods of trauma. It is be a key strategy to reducing the consequences of toxic stress experienced throughout the pandemic. Play supports healing. Play builds executive function skills needed for everyday survivalExecutive function and self-regulation skills are the critical mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully.
When a child is deeply engaged in play, either by themselves or with others, they are inadvertently practicing all of these essential skills that will help them navigate this ever-evolving world for the rest of their lives. Alternatively, lack of play at a crucial junction of life can hamper the child’s development that reverberates in their lives.
The dictionary definition of play is, ‘To engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose.’ If you observe a 3 year old playing in the mud, you will know that this definition is far from the truth. Play is a very serious activity for a young child and her purpose from play is to learn. In the words of Jean Piaget, a renowned learning theorist, “Play is the work of childhood.”
We, as a community, need to acknowledge the power of play and rethink its position in our current society. While we all acknowledge that play is fun and crucial to the childhood experience, the opportunities and spaces to play for our future generations continue to shrink by the day. Every household and preschool now has a designated ‘play time’ which is almost always far lesser than ‘learning time.’ This distinction, that play and learning must remain separate for a young child, as well as the fact that learning is more important than play, takes away from what research is telling us – play is learning and all learning time is play time.
Today, parents are choosing preschools based on how fast their children will memorise to read and write their ABCs. Schools are more than happy to oblige when it comes to ensuring that children have hours of ‘learning time,’ with a 30-60 minute play time each day.
When children play, they construct learning. With each additional experience, the neural networks create additional connections in their brain and over time with repeated enriching experiences, these connections are strengthened. Play allows children to engage with learning in a rich and complex way that emulates the real world setting far better than straightforward, repetitive instruction and hence the learning stays with them much longer.
Think of play as a customized laboratory that the child’s brain has constructed especially for her to learn in. The number of things a child discovers, learns and retains from a quality play session can never be achieved by completing a mountain of worksheets. It is time for our society to bring back every child’s right to play.
We can do this by creating quality public spaces that are safe and accessible for all children and by advocating for schools to actively ensure that play is an integral part of the child’s daily routine. In a world where future opportunities are becoming increasingly unclear and volatile, we need our children to be able to adapt, to be resilient and to be able to make decisions for themselves and for the community at large. Play is the best choice we can make for our children today.