The Power of Play in Your Child’s Development

boy playing with blocks

To children, play is serious business. Through play they learn new concepts and then use these concepts to understand more complex ideas. Play also gives children an opportunity to practice what they are learning. An environment where play is valued is an enchanting, supportive way for your child to investigate, grow and develop. Play is an adventure to be explored. This stuff is the magic of childhood!

Play, more than any other activity, fuels healthy development

Spontaneous child-directed play, powered by their imagination, has tremendous potential to enhance development and increase cognitive skills needed for later academics. When you respect and encourage your child’s play, positive feelings will flourish. Freedom to play enables your child to formulate strategies to life’s problems, generate solutions, and make discoveries.

As you watch your child engrossed with her toys, you may wonder if this carefree play has any bearing on future academic activities. See how intently your child concentrates on tasks while playing? Your youngster is practicing the skills of concentration, making discoveries, and developing a love for learning. In fact, through play experiences, your child is developing the skills needed to become a successful student as they develop the skills required for competence in cognitive, social and creative spheres.

You can nurture your child’s development by providing the materials and opportunities she needs. While toys can augment learning, you don’t have to spend a lot of money to ensure that your child is getting rich experiences. Increasing unstructured play does not require a big investment in new toys or the latest gizmos. Concentrate on providing children with quality, basic toys to stimulate a myriad of learning skills:

Blocks, Legos, any type of building set.

Building materials are ideally suited to teach spatial skills, math and science concepts. Children experience notions like size, shape, order, length and weight as they select, build and clean up blocks. Children also strengthen their muscle control, hand-eye coordination and visual skills. Playing with building toys enhances perceptions.

Board games.

Games provide an excellent, structured way for children to learn about counting and patterns, as well as the importance of following directions and rules. Social skills are also developed as children share, take turns and cooperate when playing games.

Non-toxic Crayons, markers, paper, paints, scissors.

These tools help children become creative and solve problems. When young children manipulate materials; physical skills are strengthened and refined particularly fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination. These skills are crucial as children learn how to write. In fact, writing often emerges from children’s artwork. Literacy skills are developed, and fine motor skills are refined as children experiment with writing materials.

Dolls, plush toys and action figures.

These help children learn social interaction and role-playing. Children are able to use their imagination and be creative. Language skills are enhanced as they imitate, role play and chat.

Creative props and dress-up apparel.

Through dramatic play children can express emotions, think, work out fears and use objects symbolically. Dramatic play not only enables children to be imaginative but also fosters problem-solving skills.

Books, tapes, instruments

Verbal skills are enriched as children read, write and listen.

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Enriching Children’s Play

Because play is a dynamic process, a parent’s role is to be responsive to children’s shifting interests. Enhance your child’s learning through play by providing new experiences, challenging their abilities, and responding to emerging interests. You can do this by trying the following:

  • Allow your child to direct her own play. (too much direction constricts imagination)
  • Ask open-ended questions, offer suggestions, and answer questions to expand upon your child’s play experiences.
  • Take your child on trips that expand on her areas of interest. For example, if your child loves to play with a toy farm, take a day trip to a real farm.
  • Provide age-appropriate toys, materials and props.

One of the rudimentary ways you can reinforce play is by validating your child’s experiences. Parents should convey that what their child is doing has value. The process of reinforcement involves several strategies:

  • Describe what your child is doing. “I see you used the Legos to build a bridge,” or “You mixed red with yellow paint to make the color orange.”
  • Ask your child to describe what they are doing. “Tell me about the structure you made,” or “Tell me about your painting.”
  • Ask questions that invite your child to examine their work and look for new possibilities. “How do you think you could build a road for your cars?”  or “What do you think will happen if you add more water to the watercolors?”

Fostering Imaginative Play

Imaginative play is a big part of your child’s normal development. It is up to you to recognize it, nurture it and value it.

  • Buy toys that enhance creativity, such as blocks, puppets and dolls.
  • Create a dress-up box for your child filled with old clothes, shoes, hats and jewelry.
  • Give your child a creative corner in your home.
  • Don’t try to control imaginative play. When kids engage in imaginative play it’s their turn to be in charge.
  • Read to your child. Books can provide people, places and things that inspire imagination.

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Dawn Marie Barhyte is a widely published author with over a hundred articles to her credit. A former early childhood educator and co-director who continues to touch the lives of families through her writing! She lives and works in the beautiful Hudson Valley, NY with her beloved husband and rescue chihuahua dachshund.

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