Learning Activities In Early Childhood
Parents intuitively know that playing is good for children, but we rarely associate playing with learning. It turns out that there are many benefits of playing.
For most people, learning means acquiring a specific skill, e.g. memorizing alphabets, counting, writing, etc., but playing is only for fun.
According to studies, playing is learning. It is not only fun, but also essential to a child’s growth and development.
Play stimulates brain growth and enhances early development
Psychologist Edward Fisher analyzed 46 studies done on children’s play and found that play can enhance children’s early development. Such improvements ranging from 33% to 67% result from increase in children’s adjustment and language and decrease in their social and emotional problems.
How does playing create these benefits? Let’s take a look at one famous animal study for clues.
In 1949, psychologist Donald Hebb, also known as the father of neuropsychology, did the first “enrichment experiment” using rats. Many variations of this experiment were performed later to assess the impact of such environments on brain development.
In a typical enrichment experiment, rats are housed in two different environments — one filled with toys (enriched) while the other is not (impoverished). After living in the enriched environment, these rats’ brains become bigger and more active, particularly in the area associated with learning and memory.
We know that cardio exercise can lead to a bigger heart. In rats, play leads to a bigger brain. Play is like an exercise for the brain.
Play improves intelligence, learning and memory
Living in a stimulating environment makes rats smarter. A larger cerebral cortex in their brains allow them to learn faster and have better memory. They find their way through mazes or swim to safety faster.
Similar results have been found in experiments using other mammals such as birds, cats and monkeys.
The same experiment cannot be done on kids due to ethical reasons. So we cannot conclude that human brains respond to play in the same way. However, one research by University of Arkansas shows that offering toys in infancy leads to higher IQ at 3 years of age and again at 4.5 years. Play also links to various cognitive improvements that we will discuss below. It seems likely that human brains can benefit from playing in similar ways.
Play sparks creative thinking
Many studies have found significant relationships between play and divergent thinking, the type of thinking that generates creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions.
For example, in a study of 52 children aged 6 to 7 years old, the group that played with salt-dough was significantly more creative in subsequent craft activity than those assigned to a structured exercise – copying text from the board.
Another study at Eastern Michigan University found that free play enhances divergent thinking. Later on, psychologists observed that pretend play in particular was related to subsequent divergent thinking improvement.
Association between pretend play and creativity receives much attention from play researchers around the globe. Some caution against drawing conclusions prematurely due to controversial experiment methodology.
However, pretend play requires children imagining and acting out different scenarios. It seems likely that imagination can fuel creativity. Creative adolescents were also found to tend to have imaginary companion in childhood.
Link to communication, vocabulary, language learning and visual spatial skills
Link between early social play and later communication skills is evident in research, too.
For instance, one research found that if an infant initiated a toy play and if the mother responded by manipulating and naming the toys, the baby had better language development measured 3 months later.
University of Georgia scholars conducted a study by observing 65 kindergartners in the classrooms over a four-week period. The presence of play, especially pretend play, was found to predict these children’s performance in pre-reading, language and writing.
Pretend play can improve preschoolers’ expressive vocabulary (speaking) and receptive vocabulary (understanding). Children learn these by listening to each other when they play. Through social play children learn to reach agreement and to reciprocate words and actions.
Playing with blocks and objects has also been found to enhance children’s visual spatial skills, which are linked to better performance in STEM learning.
Pretend Play Facilitates Impulse Control And Emotion Regulation
Self-control is one of the most important skills for school readiness. Well-regulated children can wait for a turn, resist the temptation to grab a desired object from another child, control negative emotion and persist at a challenging activity.
In a New Zealand study, when a negative event was induced during pretend play, children who had more pretend play with their caregivers were better at regulating their emotion to continue playing.
Another study in Cleveland, OH supported the results. 61 female kindergarten through fourth graders were observed in pretend play. Pretend play ability was found to be closely linked to emotion regulation skills.
Self-regulation is not only essential for academic success, but it can also predict a child’s social success. In preschool, children who exhibit better emotion control are also more likable and socially competent.
Pretend Play Improves Social Competence And Empathy. Playful Children Are Popular And Happy.
Play provides opportunities for children to learn social interaction. Whilst playing together, children learn to cooperate, follow rules, develop self-control, and generally get along with other people.
Psychologists found that the amount and complexity of fantasy play by preschoolers significantly predicted their social skill, popularity, affective role taking and positive social activity.
Playful children are happier, better adjusted, more co-operative and more popular with their peers than those who play less.
Unstructured active play with others, including with parents, siblings, and peers, is a major opportunity to cultivate social skills.
During play, enactment of pretend and negotiation among peers both enhance children’s social skills.
Children participating in early social pretend play are more understanding of other people’s feelings and beliefs. Empathy is another essential element that advances children’s social skills.
Play Benefits Health
We’ve seen that play promotes emotion regulation that is important for a child’s resiliency and mental health in the future.
Play often involves physical activities that benefits physical health, motor control, strength and endurance.
Play Teaches Life Lessons
Play helps develop the motor skills and cognitive ability to deal with future tasks in life.
Playing out life’s problems can help children cope with the struggles in their own ways.
Play is also a useful tool for children to rehearse skills and future social roles in a safe context. It is also an important facilitator of perspective taking and later abstract thought.
Play Strengthen Relationship With Caretakers And Peers
If nothing else, parents playing with their children is an excellent way to bond. Even a simple play such as peekaboo can produce an intense positive affective state in young children. Such interaction contributes to the type of positive life experiences that help children’s brain development.
Happy playful moments in children are some of the most precious gifts we can give our children.