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Play and playfulness: critical to child development

We call play the work of children. In play, children have a voice and are the creators of their own experiences and outcomes; play is something that children seek out and want to participate in. Through play children can explore and be problem solvers. They create and test theories, practice observation and interpret their observations. Play helps children develop skills such as listening, concentrating, paying attention, exploring, negotiating, exploring feelings, controlling impulses and problem solving. These skills are necessary in the development of executive functioning (being able to control more than one thing at a time) which strengthens our ability to regulate our emotions and behavior in various settings.

Stages of Play

All play provides opportunities that allow for progress within all developmental domains (social, physical, language, intellectual, creative, and emotional).

Generally, play advances through stages and will follow a similar pattern for most children. This stages of play are:

  • Unoccupied Play: When a child is moving about from place to place with seemingly no purpose. They are exploring their world and how their body works.

  • Solitary Play: When a child prefers to play alone, they are learning to entertain themselves and are gaining self-sufficiency.

  • Parallel Play: When children play side by side, maybe using the same toy or material, but are not actively engaged with one another, they are learning to play in the company of other children.

  • Associative Play: When children play separately but are involved in what each other are doing, engaging with each other, but still making their own creations, they are taking their first steps towards playing together.

  • Cooperative Play: When children are engaged together and there is a common purpose to the play - this is what parallel and associative play have been building to.

It is important to remember that all children are unique and move through the stages at their own pace. One child may prefer the comfort of solitary play while another will gravitate to the social engagement that accompanies cooperative play. Whatever types of play children prefer, play and learning go hand in hand; meaning children learn best through active and varied hands-on play and engagement with their everyday environment.

Supporting play

At Norwood Child and Family Resource Centre, program staff actively embrace the idea that children learn best through play and play is the outlet in which children make sense of their world.

Our programs are play based and child led. Educators carefully observe children and make provisions for use of time, space, equipment, and materials for use by the children. Children are encouraged and given the freedom to make decisions during their play in how the time, space, equipment and materials will be used and explored. This is considered open-ended play or play that is emergent (it is led and directed by the child.) This kind of play is not bound by limitations imposed by educators. This freedom helps children develop the capacity to be more creative as they grow, explore possibilities, problem-solve, and interact with others. In consequence, play experiences can and many times do, look different for individual children.

By encouraging play and playfulness, children are naturally using their imagination and creativity to think about things in new and interesting ways. They are becoming our future scientists, explorers, architects, designers, chefs, engineers, teachers, caregivers, doctors, and more by using ‘out of the box’ thinking.

How can you encourage play and playfulness at home?

Through play children learn many important life skills. When you give your child materials from around the home, such as plastic bottles, recycled boxes, wooden spoons, etc., they use them to play. When they stack boxes from largest to smallest, they are learning about balance, about how to build, design, and solve spatial problems.

Or in more academic terms, they are learning mathematical concepts such as sequencing; ordering; small, medium large; patterning, angles, weights, etc. This helps children explore their interests and prepares them for their future education and eventually occupations.

Parents/caregivers support all this amazing learning by providing materials and asking open-ended questions such as, “how can you balance the boxes?” “can you tell me about what you built?” and, when something goes wrong, “how could you fix that?”

Parents often feel like they should teach or explain when their child struggles. But this is the perfect opportunity to help your child learn and grow by asking questions, not providing answers.

Play as a parenting tool

Caregivers can use play as a tool to help smooth out transitions and create child friendly schedules within the home. Does your child have a hard time getting ready for bed? If your child is active and likes to climb out of bed often, incorporate some movement games as a part of your nightly schedule. A favourite game such as Simon Says is something to look forward to, helps burn off excess energy and is a clear signal of what is coming next. These moments can also create a special time between caregiver and child leaving both feel appreciated and loved.

Play builds brains!

When adults take time to play with children, actively following a child’s lead, they are signaling that they believe that the child is important, strong and capable. In addition, sharing many and varied experiences with children helps support healthy brain development by creating strong neural networks. Playing together also secures healthy attachments between the child and their caregiver. These responsive relationships support children when they encounter stressful or adverse childhood experiences by teaching them how to manage, tolerate and reduce stress.


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