With all the pressure and distractions pulling at and pushing on the children of today – from t-ball, to swim lessons, from play dates to Spanish immersion, from ipods to computer games – sometimes the simple act of play is forgotten. Maria Montessori said, “Play is the work of the child.” Play helps children develop physically, mentally and socially.
Physically – Children develop physically when at play. On a playground, large muscle groups are used and strengthened. Climbing the stairs to the slide builds strength and balance. The act of kicking a ball uses the large muscles of the legs while coordination is being practiced. Running helps the cardio-vascular system, and hanging on monkey bars develops upper body strength.
Playing outside has obvious physical benefits, but inside play also promotes physical development. Building a tower of blocks develops fine motor skills. Playing with puppets help children understand how their hands work. Pinching, pounding and rolling play-dough builds strength in a child’s hands, preparing him for writing.
Mentally – Many toys on the market are designed to introduce children to colors, the alphabet and numbers. While, there is nothing wrong with these toys, children are only being taught at the lowest level of learning – rote memorization. Even if he learns to count or to recognize the letters, he is only learning at the knowledge level.
When children have access to simple toys, they can make mental strides while at play. A good toy allows a child to think, to plan and to execute. A good toy also gives room for experimentation and imagination. A set of wooden blocks allows a child to think about what he wants to produce, to plan how he will build it and then gives room for trial and error. Architectural and scientific laws apply here. Gravity takes over. Weight needs to be distributed and supported. While at play, a child begins to understand universal laws that govern our world.
Children who have access to a sandbox will be able to plan a road or to build a castle. A sandbox can be the springboard for an imaginary world. Children can host a pretend birthday party by building a sand cake with stick candles. Their small muscle groups are being strengthened while their imaginations and planning skills are being exercised.
Socially – Just as children learn about the laws that govern the universe while at play, they also discover how the community they live in works. A few simple props and a child becomes a mail carrier. Some play money and the child owns a hardware store. A table and some play food, and she now runs her own restaurant. A doll, and he’s a father. A stuffed animal, and she’s a vet. With friends, children will practice and start to perfect social interaction. With a bit of adult guidance, children can role-play how to handle sticky situations or how to politely answer the phone.
Dramatic play involves interacting in a way that simulates something else, but a child grows socially during play even without pretending. When both children want to kick the same ball, deciding what to do causes children to grow socially. When there is one child who is a bit overbearing, children learn how to handle themselves with trying people. Adults should be available for guidance, but a child really learns and understands social situations when they see cause and effect. Many times, a child can see that if she takes the mailbag away from her friend, her friend is sad. Or he can see that if he doesn’t take turns with the ball, no one wants to play with him. Sometimes an adult can give a bit of narration in these situations, just for clarification, but children should make their own decisions and live with the natural consequences.
Even in a world full of academics, full of events, full of competition, a child learns best at play. If a child can recite is ABC’s, but feels uncomfortable interacting with other children, he is not going to flourish in the real world. If a child knows his state capitals, but doesn’t understand how to build a tower of blocks, he is not really educated. Remember, play is the work of childhood. Children are learning, really learning, while at play.