From the experts: the importance of play
We all know that play forms a big part of our little one’s development, but we don’t often appreciate just how important it is.
Play is essential for every child’s development – it’s the most important thing they can do. During play, children develop and hone the vast majority of the skills they will need to be successful, everything from imagination and manipulation skills to socialisation and emotional intelligence. Play-lead learning is by far the most successful approach to instilling new skills and knowledge into our Tots. Luckily for us, play is instinctive within children. It will come as no surprise to know that children are wired to be curious and to explore, in a playful way, the world around them. They don’t need much coaching. Just look at their ability to turn an empty cardboard box into the world’s greatest toy. They instinctively know what they need to learn and are naturally driven towards play that helps them build on the skills they are starting to develop.
The way this happens will vary from child to child, but unstructured play that allows your Little to explore their environment is an essential part to every child’s day-to-day life and to their full flourishing as a human.
Different types of play
When we talk about ‘play’ it doesn’t have to involve an elaborate set up or expensive toys that do three hundred different things. Simple play that allows your Little to work with their hands and bodies, explore their space and observe their surroundings often costs very little to set up but reaps the biggest rewards. You only need to go for one nature walk that involves running and hopping, spinning and shouting, looking closely at the patterns on leaves and pretending to be a bear rambling through the forest to appreciate how they will find play in every environment.
While our Littles are wired to find play in almost every opportunity, we’re also able to help them by considering the different types of play and allowing opportunities for them to explore each one. Giving them skills to manipulate is as simple as setting up some playdough with cookie cutters and rolling pins, or perhaps helping them build a tall Duplo tower. A focus on fine motor skills may involve threading some coloured pasta onto a ribbon. All of these are essential building blocks for maths skills later in their school careers.
A lot of pretend play allows them the opportunity to develop their imaginations. Think cooking up an imaginary meal in their toy kitchen, or fighting off fantastical dragons dressed up as knights. Imitation of you in daily life is also something they will love to get involved in.
Sensory play, whether that’s digging animals out of jelly or pouring coloured rice into different containers, helps mature your child’s nervous system and the sensory integration skills they’ll need later on.
Top tip: Toddlekind playmats and splash mats are ideal for making messy sensory play, well, less messy!
Thinking about your space
Creating a rich and exciting environment for your Little to explore and play in is so helpful in facilitating independent and immersive play. Think about the toys and objects on display – this doesn’t mean you have to have lots of toys, carefully chosen items that facilitate different methods of learning are more important that toy boxes stuffed to overflowing with all the dangles and trinkets you can imagine.
It’s also important to create an environment with just the right level of ‘challenge’. Whether that’s gross motor (large movements your Little makes, think jumping on a trampoline, climbing a pikler triangle, or crawling and rolling for younger tots), cognitive (pretend play, matching games and problem solving), or fine motor (threading, stacking, drawing or finger painting). Sense of achievement and accomplishment in play is really important so play that is challenging enough to develop persistence and frustration tolerance, but not so hard that it becomes impossible, vastly increases the child’s enjoyment. It’s important for them to have that sense of success because it gives them confidence to keep trying different things.
In summary, you know your Tot best, a few hours of observing them at play will tell you what they are working on developing at the moment. Then you can set up invitations to play that will give them more chances to work on those skills. Carefully choosing toys and age appropriate games will allow mastery and sense of success over a challenge and their environment which then spurs them on to try new and different things with more confidence.
For this article we consulted Occupational Therapist Leah, who works in England.