As an early childhood educator, play is a really important part of my day. After all, play is how young children learn. Consider something as timeless as exploring clay at the kitchen table. Manipulating the clay strengthens muscles in the fingers and hands, building the same fine motor skills that will be needed to hold a writing tool one day. When they interact with clay, a child is also experimenting with cause and effect: If I push down on this part, what happens? If I pound or squeeze the clay, what changes? And all the while, synapses are forming and neurons are firing away in your child’s brain. That’s right – play actually changes the brain! Research tells us that free play develops the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for self-control, critical thinking, and decision-making. Those are skills your child will use for the rest of their life. Play isn’t just fun; it’s essential.
So how can you support your child’s play at home? Here are some easy tips to get started.
Keep It Simple
There is no shortage of toys out there that can do amazing things. But when it comes to supporting learning, open-ended materials will really get your child thinking and using their imagination. Open-ended toys are ones that can be used in multiple ways. Think about things like blocks, art supplies, and dolls. A simple rule of thumb to consider when selecting materials is that the child should be doing most of the work, not the toy. And they don’t have to be fancy. Many everyday items can become toys with a little creativity. Empty boxes and paper towel tubes offer great invitations to get playing and learning!
Let Children Take the Lead
We love our children and want what’s best for them, especially when it comes to their educations. It can be really tempting to approach their play with our own agendas, wanting to maximize the learning. I encourage you to observe your child at play for awhile. What kinds of play do they naturally gravitate towards? Which activities keep their focus for longer stretches of time than others? What are they doing when they seem happiest? Discover what sparks a sense of wonder and joy for your child. Their time spent in these activities will lead to lasting understandings, both about themselves and the world around them.
Talk With Your Child
Play is an excellent opportunity for your child to develop their language skills. Rather than posing questions that have one-word answers (like “What color is this?” or “How many are there?”), aim for a conversation that will encourage your child to expand on their ideas. Some possibilities include:
- Narrate what you see your child doing, using descriptive but straightforward language. This may feel a little silly if you’re not used to it, but it gets easier with practice. “You’re putting the red block on top of the yellow one.” “Now there’s some pink paint in that corner of the paper.” “The car rolled all the way to the door!”
- Use “I wonder…” statements to help your child think about their play and dig a little deeper. “I wonder what would happen if those colors got mixed.” “I wonder what makes that paper is so hard to cut.” “I wonder if we have enough stickers to cover the whole page.”
- Take a picture! Allow your child to photograph their work and then review it together. Looking at a picture invites new perspectives and may highlight something that your child hadn’t noticed before.
Once you get in the habit of looking closely at your child’s play, you will be amazed at all the things you see them learning! You’ll begin to see math in their Lego creations, science as they stomp in puddles, and early literacy as they make marks on paper. Try embracing and celebrating your child’s play; you’ll be setting them up for a lifetime of learning.