Children need the freedom and time to play.
Play is not a luxury. Play is a necessity.
– Kay Redfield Jamison
When I came across this quote, it made me stop and think.
Play is a necessity. Interesting. Necessary for what? The importance of play for everyone has gotten a lot of attention in research and literature in recent years. In adults, play means something different to different people – playing hockey, painting a landscape, singing show tunes, training dogs, going for a morning run or even building a deck! In childhood, play has a very special and important role. Play affects just about every area of a child’s development, and impacts brain development. Play makes us feel good and it can motivate us and help us learn. In discussing play in children, I’m not talking about the need for mountains of trendy, expensive toys or electronics, but just ‘play’, pure and simple.
Why would I care about play? I specialize in speech and language. Speech-Language Pathology isn’t only about talking and understanding, it’s about communicating and interacting with others, and those skills begin to develop from day one through daily routines, and through simple play. The way we bounce, rock, tickle or sing to a baby are all early play activities. When we see how babies do (or don’t) respond to these activities, we start to know more about their personalities, or how they might be feeling that day. The way that we respond in turn helps that little one to learn that what they do (or don’t do) has an effect on others. They learn that making a noise or smiling will bring on another tickle, or round of ‘Twinkle Twinkle’, and so communication begins.
In my practice, the first step in a therapy program for a young child often starts with very simple interactions. I want the parents that I coach to really understand that play is a child’s work; encouraging play and joining in play is a parent’s work. Play allows a child to learn about themselves, their environment, other children, adults and how they should and should not behave with other people. In a wonderful coincidence, when we play with a child, we also learn about them and, if we’re lucky, about ourselves too.
I think it’s incredible that so many important
life-skills can be learned through play.
When we use the term ‘child’s play’, we usually mean something that is ‘easy to do’, or ‘without significant challenge’. I have the opportunity to work with very young children every day, and my experiences lead me question that generalization. A child’s play is fun, absolutely, but without challenge? I’m not so sure the little ones would agree with that! Remember, this is their work, and they take it very seriously!
Watching a toddler tackle stacking blocks or a shape sorter for the first time, or try to sort out how to make a toy bus sing its song again, reminds me just how important it is to reset my perspective. So many skills are second nature to me as an adult, but are brand new to the children I work with. Every little step in developing early play skills requires patience… practice… learning. Think about it, when babies are really little, they learn to grasp something in their hand, then to lift it up, then their hand gets tired and, oops, it falls out. Now what?
They try again, and again, and again. Perseverance is a life-skill; how amazing is it that it can begin to develop at such a tender age. As an adult, our role may be to stay close by and to let them keep trying, to allow them the opportunity to learn. Babies and young toddlers may dump anything and everything out of containers, but putting something back into a container requires hand-eye coordination and control of grasp and release. What happens when the task becomes too frustrating?
The child needs to figure out how to communicate so that someone will know to come and help; one more skill to add to the to-do list. Wow, this ‘child’s play’ stuff is a lot of work! Fortunately, it’s also a lot of fun, which encourages these little ones to keep practicing. They certainly are motivated to learn!
Over the years, I’ve collected charts and lists detailing developmental milestones. What I find fascinating is watching the points from those lists coming to life, first in what children do in their play, and then in their everyday routines.
A baby who has been putting her fingers, then toys, in her mouth comes to realize that she can also put bits of cookie in her mouth – brilliant. One big step to independence!! The young toddler who has been playing peek-a-boo with his parents realizes that when they disappear around the corner to answer the phone they’re still there and will come back, and he doesn’t need to be sad – marvelous!
In Auditory Verbal Therapy, we coach parents to make ‘Learning to Listen Sounds’ for their babies while playing with toys, singing or looking at books. The big moment comes when, one day, that little one looks at the airplane and says ‘ahhhh’, without even realizing that she has learned how to attach a label to an object. Even more astonishing, all of that practice of making those funny sounds back and forth with any adult who will play, one day turns into first words!!
Play gives children a chance to practice what they are learning.
– Fred Rogers
Ah, those first sounds… first words. Music to every parent’s ears. What comes next? We want to hear those words again, and again of course! As adults, we can create endless opportunities for young children to practice new sounds and words through games or books. We want them to feel confident and to want to try again. When we build all of this ‘work’ into play, a child will be motivated to keep trying, to keep learning.
The repetition of songs can help children learn about body parts, actions, animals or even what the parts of a bus do! They learn how to listen and wait for the pause in a song when they can happily fill in the ‘E-I-E-I-O’ with gusto! They learn how to take turns by pushing a car or ball back and forth. They learn how to ask for help by handing the container of bubbles to a parent while looking between the two expectantly. The countless rounds of peek-a-boo, driving that blue train around the track one… more… time. So many opportunities for children to learn from us, and all we have to do is have fun – really? Amazing!
As a Speech-Language Pathologist, I may guide a parent in how to adjust play routines, or the language they use, to match their baby’s learning needs, but it really still boils down to play.
Laying the ground-work for early play and communication development opens so many doors… like the one to the land of make-believe, but that’s a thought for another day!
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