How much play is enough? How can we balance between play and schoolwork? Is play less important than a child’s academic progress? What are the benefits of play?
These are among the many questions parents juggle when it comes to the question of play for their children. While a few parents will give their children both the space and the time to play, most parents will fill up their child’s free time with extra tuition and a rigorous revision program. Surprisingly, children under the age of 12 are also caught up in their parents’ need for excellent academic performance, with children barely having time to play.
Definition and importance of play according to the Oxford dictionary, play is an “activity engaged in for enjoyment and recreation, especially by children.” The Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority (ACECQA) define play as an activity where children show their remarkable ability for exploration, imagination and decision-making, and is intensely enjoyable for them. The two definitions emphasize play as a source of enjoyment for children and it is because of this that most children will not need any external motivation to engage in play. Play comes naturally to children, whether they play alone or with other children.
Play is critical in the physical, social, emotional and cognitive development of children. Physical play such as running, jumping, stretching and skipping supports the general well-being of children as well as instills in them an appreciation for being active. Different forms of play also contribute to the development of children’s fine and gross motor skills.
When children play with others, they develop positive social skills. Playing with others provides them with opportunities to learn how to work with other children by sharing and negotiating ideas, asking and answering questions, as well as making choices.
Instances of fights are expected but they are also an opportunity for children to learn how to respect differing opinions, share common play items such as balls, paint, colors, and resolve conflict among themselves. Children learn how to hold conversations with their peers during play and this sets a foundation for the development of effective communication skills. In addition, play helps children to develop better and healthy relationships with their peers and family members.
Play significantly contributes to the emotional development of children. Play offers a safe space for children to experiment with an array of feelings. These feelings include happiness, sadness, excitement, anger and fear as children explore their surroundings and make sense of the world around them. Imaginative play offers children an opportunity to show empathy, cope with varying emotions as well as build a healthy self-esteem. During play, children learn how to deal with acceptance and rejection from peers; how they navigate these two responses prepares them for the older stages of life.
Children’s cognitive skills are developed through play, either alone or with peers. Some of the skills developed during play include paying attention, remembering, thinking, problem-solving, memory, creativity, and concept development such as counting, letter recognition, measuring, shapes and colors.
While play is often viewed as less important than academic pursuits, it is important to remember that play contributes significantly to children’s growth and skill development. The physical, social, emotional and cognitive skills that children develop during play prepare them to become successful adults.
It is important that school holidays are not viewed as an opportunity to pump more academic knowledge into children’s minds. A holiday routine that gives no time and space for play denies children the opportunity to explore, imagine, create and enjoy. As parents and guardians, we should be delighted and excited to see children playing; after all, “play is the work of the child,” said Maria Montessori.
By Lucy Simiyu, Crawford International School Psychologist