Keep the Play Alive

Diverse children enjoying playing with toys

Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” Fred Rogers

I remember when I first came across this quote from the patron saint of positive child development messages, Mr. Rogers, at a workshop. The show defined everything I believe about the value of play, and how fundamental it is for children to experience this method of learning. It reminded us to value the important ways that play builds skills development. If simply having fun was the only outcome of children’s play, that would be more than enough, but there is so much more to it.

As parents and caregivers, our primary role is to support play. We are understandably anxious about the pressures for children to have kindergarten readiness skills in place well before they start elementary school. The reality of standardized kindergarten curricula that is aligned to state standards and Common Core standards leads many parents to focus on academic skills, such as learning the ABCs and counting to 20. The pressure to teach our young children these skills can lead us to overlook play. We might even feel that introducing worksheets, drills, flash cards, or the many learning apps that mimic these modes are the key to bringing our kids up to the standards of kindergarten.

Research has shown that young children learn differently from school-aged kids. Play helps early learners build the skills necessary for critical thinking, autonomy, self-awareness, focus and leadership. Children build confidence through problem-solving. Academic skills like number sense, letter recognition, and phonological awareness (letter sounds) are developed through active play and the use of language. For example, when children experiment by sorting objects and building structures, they are learning observation, spatial reasoning, and logic skills by comparing sizes, shapes, and amounts. This forms the fundamental building blocks for understanding math and science.

Through playing together or with a caregiver, children learn how to cooperate with others, share materials, listen and build self-control and self-awareness. These are the necessary social skills that serve as foundations for academic success. Ask a kindergarten teacher what their students need and they will likely talk about self-control, focus, and sharing over every student entering their classroom knowing their upper and lower case letters. Nurturing a love of learning through open or guided play with others builds the social-emotional skills that make our children ready to learn.

Parents and caregivers help children learn by supporting creative play. We can support them by providing a variety of creative materials like blocks, crayons, dolls, toy cars, and animals or household items like pots and pans, thread, laundry caps, scarves, and utensils. We know that children get the most out of play when they interact with caregivers but it is important to let kids lead.

Ask questions about their play without giving too much of your own interpretation. When they are roaring like a lion, instead of just saying, “Oh no! It’s a scary lion”, try asking questions that lead to more dramatic play. “I hear you roaring, who are you going to eat today?” “Where do you live, Madame lion?” When they are drawing, instead of saying what it looks like to you: “Is that a ladybug? That’s so pretty”, try a more open-ended approach. “I see that you used a lot of strong red and black colors. The pattern of dots is striking and really stands out! What is it? What goes next to it?” Let the child tell you whether or not it’s a ladybug.

When we support play without taking control of the learning process, children learn to express their own ideas and develop critical thinking and independence. Ask guiding questions or step back and allow the child to speak freely. Knowing how to support rather than guide play recognizes and values the skills our children are developing.

At BANANAS, we believe in the power of play for learning! We host Play and Learn playgroups throughout Oakland and Berkeley and will be opening up playgroups in the Havenscourt Community of East Oakland four days/week starting in September 12 at the Cubhouse – A Family Play Zone. Come join us and get some serious learning in! Click here to RSVP.