The positive power of play

Every year here in Bend, OR we have “The week of the young child.”  It’s a week of activities centered around child development in the first five years of life.  Last night I went to a really great free event with several speakers who shared their passions about supporting child development.  We heard a lot about pre-literacy and how to prepare young children for reading.  But the speaker that moved me most talked about the importance of play in learning and development.

In humans, as in other animals, play is crucial to learning.  When children engage in imaginary play they are acting out possible real life scenarios, practicing skills they’ll need as they mature, and processing experiences they’ve had.  So, if we want to support our children’s learning and growth, it’s absolutely necessary that we play with them.  I want to repeat that, because it’s not just that we ought to allow our children to play or invite their friends over to play with them.  We actually need to get down on the floor and play with them.

Since parents, grandparents, and caregivers are a child’s greatest influence for the first three years of life, it’s critical that we help young people learn how to play.  Until they’re three years old, most children will engage in more parallel play with their peers than real, engaged cooperative play.  And since our neural pathways are forming beginning in utero, it is our ability to play with our babies and young children that informs their ability to play throughout their lives.  And like it or not, their ability to play dramatically impacts their ability to learn other skills.

If you’re gasping for breath right now and thinking about how hard it is for you to play, don’t worry.  There are lots of great ways to play that don’t require you to be an expert at comedy improv.  Singing songs, reading books, acting out stories from books, rhyming, and dressing up in costumes are a few ideas to get you started.

My husband just created a fun game to play with our daughter last week.  He noticed that she laughs when our dog makes a funny coughing sound so he imitated the sound and she laughed.  By the next day SHE was making the sound and HE was laughing.  Now we all take turns saying “Kack!” and we all giggle.  Our daughter has already learned her first joke!

Many of the parents I’ve worked with are concerned about the “violent” play that their young boys engage in.  So, I checked in with our resident expert and research psychologist, Amy Howell PhD.  She says that children’s so called violent play is often not actually about violence.  In imaginary play, killing and death can simply be a way to change the focus or begin a new scene.

She recommends asking your child direct questions about the game or imaginary play if you’re feeling concerned about the content but warns that parents are often too quick to interrupt. You may find that by waiting, it’ll soon become apparent that there’s no cause for concern.

If you’re still worried, try checking in, and you’ll likely learn that a magic potion will bring the character back to life, or that a new theme is about to emerge.  She also stresses that we adults far too often see children’s imaginary play through our own adult perspective, and that’s just far too literal and with too little imagination.

You may find that by checking in, you’ll learn that a magic potion will bring the character back to life, or that a new theme is about to emerge.  She also stresses that we adults far too often see children’s imaginary play through our own adult perspective.

I’ve found that young people often play at “killing” when they’re working through their feelings about their own power or the lack thereof.  So, this week, as you support your child’s imaginary play, try either checking in, or waiting to see, rather than assuming you know what happens next in the story.  And for extra credit, let your child be the director and play a part in his story to his exact specifications.

Have a wonderful week, Shelly

3 comments
Donna Auker
Donna Auker

when i read back over my post i see that i didnt proof read, and definitely need a new keyboard, or one that works as fast as my mind and fingers, so apologies for the typos and grammar etc.

Donna Auker
Donna Auker

I enjoy your sharing with all those who have found your website. Todays has provoked me to share - I think perhaps the first time. I am blessed I am a Parent Educator delivery Parents As First Teachers(PAT in America)to 60 wonderful families. I am doubly blessed tho', I have a daughter and her daughter living at home with us. My granddaughter will be "a big five year old" at the end of July and will be off to join the school system. She has engaged in the use of technology (any medium and any surface with do) since she was 7 months old. Always obsserving either Mummy doing studies or Nanny doing studies and work at home, its just a natural stimulant for her curiosity and encouragement to imitate. So our artist abilities have been bountiful since then. She has been stimulating her own mind - asking questions about letters, words, shapes, proportions etc for at least two years. This of course has always been supported by us all. A few weeks ago Jaela decided to head into a new horizon of learning thru her play. Still with her incredible artist abilities she began to draw incredible dresses/outfits etc. Then using this as the design she would create the "outfit" out of paper/card etc to dress her Barbie dolls in.
Detail is amazing, difference in each outfit incredible, all finished off with accessories - created out of paper/card etc. Do we have a future fashion designer in our home? We dont know, and honestly that will not be an issue for us. But we all revel in her self stimulated creativity. Well except for her Mum, as this has now developed into Jaela definitely developing heer own personal style of dress at 4 3/4 years!!! Her fashion sense amazes me, she put outfits together that i wouldnt dream of, and they WORK!! Go figure :) But with this comes the regular changes of clothing - 15 in one day has been the most, 12 is not uncommon, normal is 8.

I think the most amazing observation I have made with this process has been the actual creation of the outfit for the dolls. How she can take the one dimensial drawing and turn it into a three dimensional outfit in a very short period of time. How through her own exploration she has understood that the oufit needs to be created to go around the body of the doll etc.

I am waiting for her to ask to be able to use the sewing machine next .........

Vivian Kirkfield
Vivian Kirkfield

Thank you Shelly!
This is a wonderful article about a subject near and dear to my heart. Since Janaury, I've been visiting the local kindergartens here in Colorado Springs, reading some of the picture books recommended in my new parenting book and doing the simple carft projects that appear in the book as well. I am amazed at the hectic pace in many of the classrooms...so much emphasis on teaching reading and writing...and not enough time to listen to stories, do arts and crafts and JUST PLAY! The children are definitely losing out in the state mandated scramble to up the test scores on standardized tests.