We tend to think of learning as something we impart to our children. It’s the lessons that we teach them and the information they’re offered in school. In reality, though, all children – but especially very young ones – learn through play and exploration as much as through any direct teaching. That’s why it’s so important for parents to support and integrate different types of play in their children’s daily lives; the lessons they learn at play will serve them as well as any formal teaching.
Different Types Of Play
If you’ve ever been in a preschool classroom, you may have seen different areas marked with their role, such as dramatic play, reading and writing, building, or arts and crafts, and while some of these have an academic aim, they all help develop different types of skills – but even these centers just scratch the surface of play. Other categories include play with different social dynamics, such as solitary and parallel play, which young children participate in, as well as cooperative and associative play, which children typically begin engaging in during their preschool years.
Once children are able to participate in cooperative and associative play, they can participate in competitive play, group dramatic activities, and more complex constructive play projects. These activities foster skills such as taking turns and vocabulary development, imagination and storytelling, and the development of fine and gross motor skills that children will use to write, draw, and play instruments and sports. Most importantly, though, for children to learn through play, the activities need to be developmentally appropriate.
Early Learning And Independence
As noted above, younger children tend to engage in solitary and parallel play and these activities provide ample opportunity for toddlers to develop independence. In fact, the early years are largely marked by this assertion of independence, the declaration of “me do!” Parents can support this type of play and learning by setting up spaces that are accessible to young children, such as setting toys on low shelves, encouraging children to learn how to carry trays and pour water, and creating dress up opportunities where they can practice putting on and taking off clothing or working with fasteners.
Outdoor activities are also an important part of the early learning process and can foster the development of gross motor skills and provide an enriching sensory environment. When young children participate in nature walks, for example, they have an opportunity to pick up rocks and sticks, throw things, climb over logs, and splash in puddles. Most importantly, children have a chance to overcome barriers and challenges independently – but with close supervision. If there is a log in the way, how do they get over it? If they fall down, do they get up and keep going? Children may at first look for help when they encounter a barrier, but over time they will come to trust their own abilities.
Growing Through Play
When it comes to older children, many people downplay the importance of play. But older children also need opportunities to learn through exploration and physical engagement, and it’s important for parents to support these enrichment opportunities. During the summer, for example, it can be a good idea to limit your children’s screen time and instead encourage them to explore the neighborhood or try a new sport. Older elementary children can learn a lot about navigation, safety, and independence walking a few blocks to the park or a friend’s house, while slightly younger children might explore the hidden corners of their own yard, turning over rocks, inspecting bugs, or building ramps, slides, and pulleys.
No matter what kind of play your child is involved in, it’s important that parents stay engaged and encourage children to push the limits of their understanding and expand their comfort zone. Ask questions, encourage children to resolve peer conflicts among themselves, and embrace the fact that sometimes there’s a mess. The good news is that part of encouraging independence in play is learning to clean up after yourself, so offer kid-safe supplies and let them scrub away their mess. It’s all part of the process.