Language Matters | The Importance of Play

Research has indicated that mental health disorders are increasing in children and adolescents ( with the increase not being associated with realistic dangers and uncertainties of the larger world. The increase does not correlate with economic cycles, wars, or any of the other kinds of world events that people often talk about as affecting children’s mental states. The changes seem to have more to do with the way that young people view the world than the way the world actually is. Much of this is related to the perception of taking control of one’s own life; the ability to solve problems, develop one’s own interests and become competent in pursuit of one’s own interests.

The research identifies that a major contributing factor is the increase in adult-directed learning environments and the decline in play opportunities for young children, and that by depriving children of opportunities to play on their own, away from direct adult supervision and control, children are deprived of opportunities to learn how to take control of their own lives. Author Dr Gray PhD states, “More weight is given to tests and grades than ever before. Outside of school, children spend more time in settings in which they are directed, ranked, judged, and rewarded by adults. In these settings adults are in control, not children.” He concludes that as a society, we have determined that children must spend increasing amounts of time in the very setting where they least want to be. The cost of that belief, as measured by the happiness and mental health of our children, is enormous. Dr Gray then reinforces that settings where play and self-directed exploration prevail, providing freedom and opportunity, without coercion, afford learners the opportunity to educate themselves.

Top 5 ways that children develop through play

1. Play leads to discovery of the physical world.

“Each time one prematurely teaches a child something he or she could have discovered for himself, that child is kept forever from inventing it and consequently from understanding it completely.” Jean Piaget, 1970. Piaget was the Swiss expert who has dominated thought on the nature of children’s thinking and learning since the 1960’s. He is said to be one of the most frequently mentioned and least understood developmental psychologists, his major achievements were in creating a sense of curiosity about the ways in which children learn as opposed to what or when they might learn.

Piaget noticed through his observations and research that when children play they discover things about their world and, in doing so develop a deep understanding of the natural physics and mathematical principles of our world. Piaget saw the child as constantly constructing and reconstructing reality – achieving increased understanding by integrating simple concepts in to more complex ones. He believed that children were active agents in their own learning; learning isn’t something that happens to you, it is something that you do. Hence, as adults, if we step in and show our children how something works or do it for them, we take away that first joy of discovery.

TIP: Guide and help but let children have a go (even if they get frustrated).

2. Play leads to creative thinking and problem solving.

As children discover their world through play, they are also developing the ability to problem solve. These discoveries involve observation, comparison, classification, and trying different ways to solve the problem.

TIP: Step away from the play!!! Independent play opportunities lead to better and more innovative problem solving than teaching a child how to solve the task.

3. Play helps children develop self-control and social skills. This happens through social play.

When children work towards a common goal, they must regulate their impulses in order to co-operate. Social rules (sharing, negotiating, resolving conflicts and how to behave in a group) are developed to achieve a goal or get something done. In addition to this, focused attention develops during this time.

TIP: Make time for your children to play with other children.

4. Play builds healthy minds and bodies.

Play leads to greater physical health and reduced mental stress. Children are naturally motivated to exercise in a playful way and this supports development of strength and endurance. Moving bodies gives input to developing brains and bodies.

TIP: Get outside for greenspace play, especially with high energy children. Reduce screen time and be active together as a family.

5. Play promotes connection and relationships.

Play is how children interact with their world and how they communicate. To be a part of their world and connect, we need, as adults, to allow ourselves to be playful.

TIP: Immerse yourself in your children’s world to develop closeness and trust.

Adapted from, and How Children Learn: From Montessori to Vygotsky – educational theories and approaches made easy (Pound, L. 2006).

Children love to play!

Children love to play, it is a well acknowledged fact. Learning through purposeful play requires every Early Years’ practitioner to understand what each child requires to develop holistically. Too much focus on pure academics results in adults without the necessary social skills and emotional intelligence to operate as part of a social group and in the wider community. Team-playing skills, effective communication, appreciation of characteristic strengths, thinking outside of the ‘box’ and seeing the world through others’ eyes are skills which need to develop in the early years. We see this as one of our goals at Wellington College Bilingual Shanghai, to take young children and form them into accepting, social, developed, well-rounded members of a wider social setting.