Here is a quick overview about play and its role in your child’s development:
Play is the inbuilt means by which we learn, it’s the way that we have been designed by evolution to acquire the knowledge, skills, expertise and experience to survive and thrive in the world. Learning could be ‘school subjects’ like numbers and letters or social learning such as turn taking and negotiation. Learning does also involve things adults ‘just know’, such as understanding how your body moves and the difference between hot and cold, or big and small. The urge to play is inbuilt within all of us and we don’t need to be shown how to do it.
The play that we see as parents falls into some broad groups:
Free play is the play children ‘do’ when there is no one telling them what to do. It’s the play they indulge in when they are on their own, or with peers. Psychologists are beginning to understand that this type of play is really much better than adult organised activity and structured play. This is because through free play children can make their own decisions and rules. They can problem solve, negotiate roles and take control over their actions. This builds self-esteem, and it doesn’t happen when an adult is involved because the ‘players’ are not on equal terms.
Exploratory play is the tool evolution has chosen for a child to explore their world. A baby is born into a specific culture, and they have a desire to understand what makes their exciting, and at times confusing, world tick. The best way to do this is to gather information about the everyday objects they are surrounded by. It’s why children are particularly attracted to objects they see you using – whether it’s your shoes, your keys, kitchen utensils, or a mug of tea, children realise that these objects are significant.
This exploratory play starts in younger babies through mouthing which usually occurs around the age of 3-4 months. Suddenly everything from their hand, to your shoulder, a blanket or a spoon is put straight into their mouth. As they get older and are able to explore things more with their hands, they will start to use mouthing less and less. Instead we may see them performing a little repertoire of favourite tests on a new object – like hitting, throwing, lifting and connecting it with other familiar objects. But it’s not unusual to see toddlers still using mouthing when they come across something completely new.
Imaginative play follows on from exploratory play as children get older, because imaginative play helps fill in the detail related to an object. For example, in imaginative play a blanket could become a cape, but in order for the child to use the blanket in this way, they need to be able to conjure up the properties of a cape – the material, the weight, how it moves. They need to have learnt that cloth doesn’t do the same thing as plastic for example. Exploratory play gives a child the ability to control what they decide to learn about, and it encourages focus and concentration whilst they’re engrossed in their chosen learning.
Another type of play that parents see is role play. The people around children are a key source of information about the world and a child will playfully copy what they’ve seen adults around them doing. This type of play is the way that evolution has chosen for children to learn how to ‘be’ in their world. Through repeating adults and other children’s phrases and words, body language, facial expressions and actions they’re processing the information they’ve seen. They’re making sense of it through moving, positioning themselves, and verbalising in the same way. It doesn’t matter if they’ve only caught half of the story – children make use of whatever clues they’ve got. This often means creating ‘mash-ups’ of different situations – it’s their brain making new connections.
We said earlier that the urge to play is inbuilt within all of us and we don’t need to be shown how to do it. The idea that playing without adults stepping in is actually better for development does seem a bit odd doesn’t it? We’re so used to thinking that we need to teach, to show, or to help. However often it is better to simply sit back, observe and let the children play!