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The Secrets to Raising a Smarter Child
- By Inderbir Sandhu, Ph.D


Kids Learn A Lot of Skills From The World Of Play

By Ken Mathie

For children, play is their work. It is naturally enjoyable, of course, but more than that, it is their way of learning about the world. It helps them naturally engage in things that interest them. Therefore, play should be led by the child or at least inspired by the child, in order for it to remain relevant and meaningful to them.

When children are at play in a positive fashion, they happily lose themselves in what they are doing. They live in their own realm of imagination and can explore and examine at leisure. Many times, they can pull their parents in by saying, "Lets play, mom," and mom, too, then can enter into that childlike world once again.

In addition to children, young infants also immerse themselves in play activities. They do so because they need to make sense of the world around them. Play gives very young children the means to experience the world through their own eyes, which is vital for their development. Peekaboo is one such game; although this simply seems silly and fun to adults, babies rejoice in the surprise they feel every time they see the faces of the people they love reemerge over and over.

Stages of Play

As toddlers, children experience a growth spurt and a rapid increase in motor development. Because of this, they are driven to manually explore literally everything they can get their hands on. They can fiddle with everything from a construction toy to the box it came in. Toddlers also explore the world by continually babbling as they learn the language they were born into. They can also dance spontaneously, and wiggle with absolute joy or imitate finger plays with mom and dad.

As preschoolers, children began to do what is called "parallel play," in which they play alongside peers but not necessarily with them. As children get older, they actually begin to interact with peers in their play, so that friends become fully involved in their ongoing imaginative games. Increased ability, both physical and motor, as well as imaginative, allows them to extend their play from indoors to out, from simple play with stuffed animals to table games, to dramatic games and outdoor activities.

Benefits of Play

As stated above, play is no laughing matter, even though it is, of course, fun. In fact, play is simply a children's way of exploring and making sense of the world. Therefore, it is really necessary. Some reasons why include:

1. Play is absolute pure and utter joy.

For the toddler who uses the empty box as a car and imagines driving down the highway just as mom or dad does going to work, imaginative play helps him understand mom and dad's world from his point of view. And of course, he exhibits a sheer joy when he does this that many adults may be slightly envious of.

2. Play develops socio-emotional learning.

As children play, they develop competence, confidence and independence in the new situations they encounter there. The 10-month-old who shrieks with joy at her stuffed toy and a 10-year-old playing basketball with his friends both are learning age-appropriate rules and social norms in the process. The baby learns to wait for her toy with patience, while the boy learns to deal with the possibility of losing the game, and with being a good sport regardless.

3. Play develops physical and motor development.

Because play often encompasses the use of every sense, including the body and use of the extremities, children not only exercise their minds, but their bodies as well; they develop physical strength, ease of movement, and balance and coordination.

Perceptual motor ability, which is the capacity to coordinate what you perceive with how you move, is a basic skill every preschooler needs to develop. Three-year-olds do this by digging, scooping and pouring sand into a container, which helps them develop a sense of balance between the perception of the space in front of them and hand movements, so that he follows through properly with the appropriate motor activity.

4. Play helps develop cognitive learning.

Play is very important to a child's intellectual development. To learn properly, children need to learn to decipher words, numbers and other forms of higher intellectual functioning. When children are very young, symbols will not mean anything to them, because young children have not yet learned to make the leap in reasoning that abstract thinking requires. Play helps teach children to understand these symbolic relationships better in ways that are truly fun and meaningful to them. For example, a child can play when he or she learns that two plus three equals five. This can be done, for example, by having a parent sit down with several blocks and showing the child by an arrangement on the table just what two plus three equals five entails. You can start by grouping two blocks together and three blocks together and then push them together to say, "Equals five." In this way, the child learns to translate abstract concepts like addition into very concrete examples that he or she can understand.

Older children, similarly, can learn things like math concepts such as addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, by doing game scores. Applying these types of skills to practical applications is what will help children of any age learn best.

5. Play enhances language development.

Beginning with infants and toddlers, play can help facilitate language development. Toddlers especially will need to be immersed in language continually so that they can imitate what they hear, although this is also important for infants. Children who have learned to speak learn best from songs and rhymes that are both fun and educational, in that the songs use rhyme, alliteration and consonance, for example, so that they are easy to remember, fun and very easy to imitate. This helps children begin to understand how language works.

When children play with toys, adults can facilitate learning by modeling how they can use language to label objects or describe an event. When they play, preschoolers use language to interact with each other, communicate ideas, and can also learn information by listening to older children and adults teach them things.

6. Play encourages creativity.

With very young children, imagination is the way to go. Young children can use imagination to learn just about anything. Suddenly, simple play clay becomes spaghetti with meat sauce, a blanket becomes Superman's cape, or an overturned coffee can becomes a makeshift drum. Just about whatever children wish to express can be done through play. In this way, they can master what they know through practice and then show new skills off, express themselves, and create endlessly.

7. Play provides opportunities to bond between the child and another person, such as parent and child.

Play is vitally important in a children's development. It lets children interact with others, experiment, and can even help with moral development. Parents can use play to encourage and support their children's development.

To start, let your child take the lead in the play. Let the child initiate the activity, set the theme of play, and establish parameters. In this way, play is a venue for children to be in control in a world where they are so often controlled by others. This helps develop competency and a sense of mastery in the child that better helps him or her develop confidence later in life. It is also a perfect opportunity to let your children unique talents develop.

You can help your child develop his sense of competency by allowing him to figure things out for himself, without pressure or a sense of "right" or "wrong." For example, if a child is learning how to figure out a puzzle, stop yourself from helping at first. Let the child literally "puzzle" over the puzzle without any interference from you. Not only will the child figure it out eventually, but he may even come up with more creative ways to use the puzzle than you could have thought of. When the task has been completed successfully, congratulate the child on a job well done.

As you play with your child, watch your child for signals as to what he or she needs you to do. Do you need to be an active participant in the activity? Do you need to provide some encouragement? Is it time to gently stop the activity, clean up and have lunch, if the child is hungry?

Whatever needs to be done, it's true that although you let the child take the lead, you can maintain control of the situation enough so that you have ultimate control over when it starts and stops and what happens during it.

8. Have a play plan.

If possible, have a loose plan in place for you and your child to spend time playing together each day. One good way to do this is to use your children's self-care chores to begin to play together. For example, brushing teeth or washing the face does not have to be all business. You can use brushing the teeth (along with the children's imagination), to encourage the child to have fun during the process. Similarly, you can use washing my face as a brief opportunity to play peekaboo, if time permits.

You can also do this with household chores. Children love to help, and this is a perfect opportunity to begin to foster a sense of responsibility to the outside world. Let your toddler use his or her own toy vacuum cleaner to "help" you vacuum when you do. When you fold clothes, give him or her a couple of pieces of toweling to fold and play with. When you wash dishes, save a couple of unbreakable pieces out and let the child play in soapy water and begin to learn how to wash dishes.

In this way, the child begins to learn a sense of responsibility along with the sense of play. Older siblings and grandparents, too, can learn to foster this in the child as they are included in your play "plan of action."

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