No, this article wasn’t written by children, we promise. Evidence is mounting that play time is actually one of the most important parts of a child’s early development. Organizations like iCAMP are dedicated to bringing the power of play to as many kid’s as possible – and that’s more important now than it’s ever been before.
After spending so much time interacting through screens and other digital channels during the COVID-19 pandemic, children (especially young children) must be given a chance to reacquaint themselves with the social and emotional stakes of working in a group. Some children will need to learn these skills for the first time.
But it’s not just social skills that are at risk.
Following lockdowns and semesters of online classes, studies have shown a “substantial overall learning deficit” caused by the pandemic that continues to this day. Could the solution to bridging this gap really be as simple as helping kids play again?
Why Play Is The Key to Early Development
All over the country, more schools and educators are turning to play-based education from the Pre-K to elementary levels because of the growing mountain of empirical data. One meta-analysis found a “greater positive effect” on math skills, knowledge of shapes, and task switching when children are allowed guided play time compared to direct instruction.
Your child’s mind is wired to activate and respond to play with intense, positive emotions. This activity can even change the neurons in their brain to help boot up their emotional regulation abilities, planning skills, and problem solving.
As with any lesson, instructors teaching play must be intentional with their objectives and their methods. But guided play, if done correctly, won’t look that much different than children playing on their own. In this case, however, they have a sympathetic adult nearby at all times to discuss ideas and to encourage problem-solving.
What Learning Through Play Looks Like
There is some wiggle room when it comes to exactly how “guided” these play sessions should be. But, in all cases, keeping an open mind is key when setting up play sessions in an educational setting.
Here are some of the most common qualities of guided play, all of which are key elements of how we structure our camps and after school courses at iCAMP:
- Play should be given plenty of space to breathe. By giving play time its own scheduled slot during the school day, children will be able to enjoy their playtime and fully immerse themselves. For instance, simply having some time after lunch to play isn’t the same as preparing an hour or two to play with purpose.
- Children should be empowered to make their own decisions during playtime. A variety of activities and the ability to choose between them can help young students better understand the connection between their choices and their consequences. Toys that can be used to create, like blocks and craft supplies, help children think outside the box if they can decide how to play on their own.
- It should be fun. What is construed as fun can be different from child to child. That’s why it’s important to let children motivate themselves during play, drawing them closer to the things they find genuinely fun. This helps encourage good social behavior, as well. A child that wants to engage in an activity they find fun has incentive to maintain social boundaries and self control.
- It should be largely unscripted. Spontaneity is another key aspect in making play an effective learning experience for children. Unscripted play creates a sense of the unknown and encourages flexibility and open-mindedness about what could happen during their time playing with others.
- It’s not about following instructions. While there are many ways an instructor can guide and support children in their play learning – including providing instructions for various activities – telling children exactly what to do and creating expectations isn’t quite the same thing.
The best results typically occur when young learners are given some inspiration ahead of play time, then given the ability to act out what they’ve learned. For example, children learning about gravity can see its power in full effect when they build a block tower and send it tumbling to the ground.
Some activities can be set up for the sole purpose of demonstrating a concept for children, giving them the choice to further explore what they learned in class. Natural curiosity takes over at that point. Students will start to blur the lines between play and learning to the point that you might wonder why they were ever separated in the first place.
This approach could be key to closing the COVID gap and raising healthier, socially-capable children with the skills to succeed as adults. The benefits of play in healthy human development are significant and should never be taken for granted. Kids, teachers, and parents agree: playtime is one of the most important parts of the day.