Something crucial to healthy childhood development is too often overlooked in our busy scheduled lives today.
This something isn’t complicated, it isn’t expensive, and it isn’t difficult to master. In fact, it’s child’s play. Your child needs free play time and lots of it!
What is free play? Simple: it is just regular play, led entirely by your child. You provide time, space, and some materials, and your child chooses what they will play with and how they will play with it. There is no need to go overboard with the materials either – a child’s imagination can do wonders with a cardboard box or a laundry basket and a paper towel roll. That’s the entire point.
Ample time for children to take the lead of their play is essential for them to grow in all developmental domains—social, physical, language, intellectual, creative and emotional. (Don’t worry, we will be covering all of these in more detail in future blog posts. Make sure you are subscribed).
But allowing your child free play time doesn’t mean there is not a role for you!
How can you support your child during play?
Ask open-ended questions
Open-ended questions are questions that cannot be answered simply with ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ such as:
“Tell me about what you are making.” "What’s your plan?”
"What will happen next?"
Asking questions like this of your child as they play strengthens their vocabulary and helps them begin to think critically as they formulate answers to your questions.
Narrate what they are doing
If your child is too young to answer questions, narrate what they are doing as they do it! This might sound like “Wow! A red car” or “Crash!” as something falls. When your child hears a word or a sound with an object or action, they can better understand what that word/action means and make the connection.
Encourage them to think outside the box!
Play that is unbound by rules or structure is essential! A rock can be a pet, or your child could turn into a princess, a dragon, or a flying dog, and that’s okay! Play is how children make sense of their world, not just as it is, but how it could be.
What kind of materials do you need to support your child's play?
Anything! Objects from around the home can be used for play: a laundry basket and a pair of rolled up socks could be used as a fun tossing game, plastic cups from the cupboard can be used to build, and pots and pans can be used to create a band. The next time you are putting something in the recycle or garbage (such as a coffee can, milk jug lid or a cardboard box) ask yourself - and your child - how it might be used for play instead.
Play builds your child’s brain
When children are encouraged to take the lead in their exploration, they stay engaged for longer periods of time. And when a child is engaged in play, they are creating connections—or synapses—in their brains. Strengthening these connections early helps create a strong foundation on which your child will continue to build their brain and will ultimately help them thrive as they grow.
Learning through play: 11 types of play
There are many different types of play! You have probably observed your child engaged in some or most of the following, depending on their age. Here’s what they are doing:
When a child seems to be moving randomly with no real objective, they are examining their world and setting the stage for future play and exploration.
Solitary (Independent) Play
When a child plays alone, they are learning to stay entertained, paving the way for self-sufficiency.
When a child observes others engaged in play without participating, they are learning about others’ ways of playing and seeking to understand social rules.
When children play side by side, maybe using the same toy or material, but not actively engaged with one another, they are taking their first steps toward eventually playing together.
When children play separately but are involved in what each other is doing; engaging, but still making their own creations, they are taking further steps toward building friendships.
When children interact and engage in play together — there is a purpose or adoption of roles — they have reached cooperative play. This is what parallel and associative play have been leading up to and can include conflict as children learn to share and take turns.
When children assign roles and act them out. This type of play is important to developing intellectual and verbal skills and shows higher-level thinking: children are remembering, re-enacting, and understanding.
When children express themselves and explore ideas, emotions and experiences through voice, music, rhyme, art, they are developing their intellectual abilities through memory, exploration, and creation.
When children use their whole bodies to play — climbing, rolling, kicking, throwing, running, catching, pinching/picking — they are learning their physical abilities (and limits).
Rough and Tumble Play
Building from physical play, this includes risky, adventurous, unstructured, natural play that contributes to skills such as resilience, independence, self-confidence, physical control and coordination, self-regulation and the ability to process fears and stress.
When conventional rules from the real world do not apply, children are engaged in imaginative play. While they are pretending to be a flying cow who saves puppies or a troll who steals a pirate’s gold, they are also making choices and experiencing outcomes of decisions in a controlled environment.
This month on Facebook and Instagram, we will be posting all about the different types of play and how it helps your child’s long-term development. Make sure to follow along with us!