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
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.