Television commercials and newspapers are advertising “Back to School” sales. The calendar page reads, “August.” It is imminent; schools will be opening their doors for the new school year. If your child is going to school for the first time, it may feel difficult to let go as he/she starts down the road toward the future. Starting school is a huge milestone -one that marks the road to adulthood and independence. As you hug your child at the door, you are laying the foundation that will help your child develop the skills she needs to be successful in the future. There are many important skills that children must learn during the early school years, beyond academic basics.
After infancy, children undergo a tremendous amount of physical and cognitive growth. Playing make-believe is an important brain development step for three to five-year-olds, which grants them the opportunity to develop executive functions. Psychologists have observed that this unstructured play gives children the opportunity to have “private speech”, allowing them to learn valuable communication, self-guidance, and self-regulation skills. Executive functions are believed to control other cognitive processes such as impulse control, information usage and retention, problem-solving, verbal reasoning, task switching, mental flexibility, and ability to pay attention.
Unstructured play: foundation for future academic success
When children are four and five years old, they are at the height of imaginative play. However, in our increasingly complex and competitive world, most children are given less time than for unstructured play than previous generations. In an interview with NPR, Dr. Dorothy Singer, a Yale psychological researcher, notes that it has been well-documented that the emphasis on test scores is driving teachers to start drilling kids earlier in fundamentals. While many may see unstructured play as a waste of time, it is the foundation for future academic success. Five ways you can help your child develop his executive functions:
Make time for unstructured play
Ask your child’s teacher how much time is devoted to playing each day. Are there structured activities or do the children have unstructured time for free play? Kids these days are involved in many activities from a young age. Give your child unstructured downtime at home so that she can just play Encourage your child to use his imagination.
Encourage your child to use her imagination
If your child pretends a banana is a telephone, allow him to use his imagination. Give them a call from another banana phone, allow her to make believe. Adults sometimes unintentionally squash a child’s imagination, by forgetting to play along.
Turn off the screens
Electronics are pervasive in every aspect of our lives. It is not uncommon to see children play with phones or tablets. Many children watch hours of television each day. However, when children play, they learn how to sequence events. Dr. Singer uses the example of a tea party, “There’s ordering and sequencing because children can’t have their tea party until first they make the clay cookies, second, boil the water then set the table, and so on. They’re beginning to learn that there’s a kind of order, of sequencing…” Television shows do not necessarily provide a linear progression while the commercials disrupt the sequence of events. Computer games tend to focus children on specific tasks and often don’t leave much room for imagination. Turn off the electronics and encourage play time.
Provide the tools that foster imagination
Give your child the time and tools to spur creativity and imagination, whether it is playing in the sand, dressing up, building a blanket fort, or making mud pies. Keep it simple, kids can play creatively for hours with play clay, arts supplies, and with clothes or other items that you already have in your house.
Schedule play dates with friends. Social time is very important for developing communication and cooperation skills. They may pretend to be pirates, princesses, or act out other roles. No matter what the activity, let the kids work out their own rules. Sometimes there may be squabbles, but that too is part of the learning.
Just remember: There is a time and place for academics, but sending your child to school for the first time is more about socialization and developing the cognitive skills that allow a child to be successful. No two children develop exactly alike, so honor and enjoy the creativity and joy that your child has as he embarks on new adventures in school.
Additional resources on benefits of unstructured play for kids