The Im­por­tance of play

It may look like all fun and games, but per­fect­ing the art of play is essential for a child’s devel­op­ment

Your Baby & Toddler - - Must Reads - BY LORI COHEN

The work of chil­dren Plus Play Milestones

Those min­utes spent stack­ing Du­plo blocks, or muck­ing about in the sand­pit, do more than put a smile on your kid’s face. The more hours of play clocked in a day, the bet­ter for your child, says oc­cu­pa­tional ther­a­pist Re­becca Wal­lis. We need to shift our think­ing from con­sid­er­ing play to be a break from learn­ing, to be­ing a pri­mary oc­cu­pa­tion of child­hood. In short, when your child is play­ing, they are ac­tu­ally hard at work fine-tun­ing essential skills. “Play pro­vides chil­dren with rich op­por­tu­ni­ties for learn­ing and is vi­tal for phys­i­cal, cog­ni­tive and spa­tial devel­op­ment,” says Re­becca.

EARLY PLAY EX­PE­RI­ENCES PRO­VIDE THE FOUNDATIONS RE­QUIRED FOR A CHILD TO EVEN­TU­ALLY BE ABLE TO SIT AT A DESK, LIS­TEN TO HIS TEACHER AND FOL­LOW IN­STRUC­TIONS, RE­SULT­ING IN A WRIT­TEN LET­TER OR WORD ON THE PAGE THAT STARTS ON THE LEFT AND PRO­GRESSES TO THE RIGHT AND IS LEGIBLE

BUILD­ING THE BODY

Play­ing may be all about fun in the early days, but it pays off in later life. Phys­i­cal devel­op­ment is mo­ti­vated by play. Think about an in­fant reach­ing out for a toy that is placed out of his reach. He will even­tu­ally roll in or­der to grab that toy.

All types of play pro­vide im­por­tant feed­back to the in­fant brain about their

en­vi­ron­ment and the im­pact that they can have on their en­vi­ron­ment. “Early play ex­pe­ri­ences pro­vide the foundations re­quired for a child to even­tu­ally be able to sit at a desk, lis­ten to his teacher and fol­low in­struc­tions, re­sult­ing in a writ­ten let­ter or word on the page that starts on the left and pro­gresses to the right and is legible,” ex­plains Re­becca.

The skills re­quired to achieve these goals are gained bit by bit each day as a child ex­plores and in­ter­acts with his en­vi­ron­ment through play. “The devel­op­ment of the ba­sic sen­sory sys­tems leads to the devel­op­ment of more com­plex skills such as bi­lat­eral in­te­gra­tion (the use of the two sides of the body in a co­or­di­nated way), pos­tural con­trol, vis­ual per­cep­tual skills, mo­tor plan­ning skills, mid­line cross­ing, main­te­nance of con­cen­tra­tion and at­ten­tion, au­di­tory pro­cess­ing and fine mo­tor skills,” she says.

THE BRAIN AND BODY AT WORK

“Play pro­vides you with op­por­tu­ni­ties to test your en­vi­ron­ment, the im­pact your body can have on the en­vi­ron­ment, as well as what your body it­self is ca­pa­ble of. It pro­vides a safe, creative space for these to be tested,” says Re­becca.

A child’s sen­sory sys­tems de­velop through be­ing pro­vided with op­por­tu­ni­ties for sen­sory-rich ex­pe­ri­ences, such as play­ing in a sand­pit. Phys­i­cal play de­vel­ops their proprioceptive and vestibu­lar sys­tems. The proprioceptive sys­tem, which has its re­cep­tors in the mus­cles, joints, bones and skin, pro­vides your child with an aware­ness of his body and how his body takes up space. The vestibu­lar (move­ment) sys­tem, gives us a sense of where our head is in re­la­tion to grav­ity, as well as the speed at which we are mov­ing. It plays a strong role in bal­ance and the tac­tile (touch) sys­tem. Feed­back from these sen­sory sys­tems tells the body where it is, how it is mov­ing and how this space can be ne­go­ti­ated. Why is this im­por­tant? “Spa­tial aware­ness on a body level is a pre­cur­sor to spa­tial aware­ness and or­gan­i­sa­tion in smaller tasks, such as per­form­ing puz­zles, or fine-mo­tor tasks, such as cut­ting and colour­ing in,” says Re­becca.

FUN WITH A FO­CUS

All ex­plo­rations and play also be­come a way of learn­ing about cause and ef­fect, ex­plains Re­becca, and this takes many dif­fer­ent forms, in­clud­ing play such as push­ing a but­ton on a toy to elicit a noise, or bang­ing on a pot with a wooden spoon to cre­ate a sat­is­fy­ing sound. It can also in­clude so­cial learn­ing, such as: “If I say or do some­thing cute or funny my care­givers will have an over­whelm­ing pos­i­tive re­sponse”. Yep, your baby’s re­ward is your laugh.

Play also pro­vides many op­por­tu­ni­ties for prob­lem solv­ing. This might in­clude games that pro­vide ba­sic op­por­tu­ni­ties for trial and er­ror, such as a shape sorter, or us­ing their mem­ory to re­call past ex­pe­ri­ences, which may help them to ne­go­ti­ate a sit­u­a­tion. This is fun­da­men­tally learn­ing – al­low­ing them to have daily ex­pe­ri­ences where they prac­tise and de­velop their cog­ni­tive skills.

YOUR MINI SOCIALITE

Many moms laugh at the fact that their kids have a bet­ter so­cial life than them, but hav­ing the neigh­bours’ tod­dler round for a play date, or even in­ter­act­ing with other chil­dren in the lo­cal park, plays a devel­op­men­tal role. “Play pro­vides chil­dren with the op­por­tu­nity to learn how to suc­cess­fully in­ter­act with one an­other, a skill vi­tal for adult life. This might in­clude skills such as shar­ing and lis­ten­ing to one an­other, which will be im­por­tant if the par­tic­u­lar game is to go on suc­cess­fully. This also pro­vides chil­dren with op­por­tu­ni­ties to de­velop their em­pa­thy. For ex­am­ple, learn­ing how it would feel if some­one took their toy away,” says Re­becca

A WORLD OF FUN

Both in­door play and out­door play are equally valu­able as they pro­vide dif­fer­ent learn­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties – all of which are nec­es­sary for well-rounded devel­op­ment. “Out­door play pro­vides good op­por­tu­ni­ties for gross-mo­tor play and the devel­op­ment of phys­i­cal skills. In­door play pro­vides good op­por­tu­ni­ties for play that might ac­cess more of the cog­ni­tive skills such as build­ing blocks and colour­ing in – gen­er­ally the types of play that pro­vide op­por­tu­ni­ties for a child to ex­pe­ri­ence main­tain­ing at­ten­tion and con­cen­tra­tion for longer pe­ri­ods of time,” says Re­becca. Re­mem­ber, in­door “play” does not in­clude watch­ing tele­vi­sion, as this is a pas­sive task that re­quires lit­tle to no cog­ni­tive in­volve­ment. Play is an ac­tive and en­gaged task.

“Ide­ally, there should be a bal­ance between in­door and out­door play, how­ever, for those of us for whom out­door play is less fea­si­ble, ex­cit­ing phys­i­cal chal­lenges can be cre­ated in­side. This might in­clude some­thing like mak­ing an ob­sta­cle course out of cush­ions or build­ing a sheet fort,” adds Re­becca. As a par­ent you can help your baby take mini devel­op­men­tal steps each day – through play. YB

A CHILD’S SEN­SORY SYS­TEMS DE­VELOP THROUGH BE­ING PRO­VIDED WITH OP­POR­TU­NI­TIES FOR SEN­SORY-RICH EX­PE­RI­ENCES, SUCH AS PLAY­ING IN A SAND­PIT. PHYS­I­CAL PLAY DE­VEL­OPS THEIR PROPRIOCEPTIVE AND VESTIBU­LAR SYS­TEMS.

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