The importance of play cannot be stressed enough. Research has shown numerous benefits from play . But often, as Indian parents, we do not seem to give as much importance to it. We tend to focus on knowledge and skills like reading, writing etc., even in early childhood. But here are some critical benefits that play gives our children. And each of these benefits is as important as learning and knowledge, in making children successful, and happy when they grow up.
When a baby is born, the brain is like clay, ready to be moulded. Medical research has shown that a child's brain develops very quickly in the early years of its life. The experiences of a child early in life form the foundation for the child's behaviour and success later in life. Undirected play and free play ensures that your child gets a wide variety of experiences - from dexterity of their hands to interaction with others. This type of play also gives the child a wider variety of experience, thus exercising a larger part of the child's brain. And just like muscles, the more each part of the brain gets exercised, the more it tends to remain fit and strong for use by the child.
During play, children often face challenging situations. Sometimes a Lego block will not fit on top of another or they may not be able to hit the ball when learning tennis or cricket. But as they persist at it and learn how to do it, they exult from every minor victory (especially with adult encouragement). Every victory and every encouragement adds to their confidence. They start to realize that if they keep persisting and concentrating on the task, they can achieve anything.
Can you picture this - "A group of children rush to the slide in the park. One looks at the height of the slide and holds back because he is afraid. However, on seeing his other friends do it easily, he too steps forward, climbs the ladder and slides". The assurance of friends being nearby or the strong hand of a parent near them, as they take the first step, helps children get over their inhibitions and fears. This helps them explore new experiences, each of which helps them conquer a new fear.
Negotiation, teamwork, leadership, all of these take place in a child-child play scenario. These are crucial social skills, developed as children play in a group. There will be different opinions on to play, what roles to adopt, what books they should have read to them. All of these require resolution as each child will have different preferences. As they learn to resolve these, they develop social skills. These social skills are a foundation for later success in life. The most successful people will tell you that it is their "people" skills that they use the most when they become leaders.
Child driven play ("where the child decides what to play and how to play it") helps them learn decision making. Children may have different options to play (cricket or tennis, this book or that book) and have to choose from these options. They can choose to do something slowly or fast, or they can choose to spend more time on an activity or not. Each of these steps makes their decision making sharper. And a lot of play, is about problem solving, like putting the puzzle together or figuring out the missing letter in a word. It requires them to think about a problem. As they encounter these various playful scenarios, they have to think at each step and it helps them make decisions and solve problems.
In a time, where there is significant concern about child obesity, physical play time helps children expend energy and get fitter. Sports and games or even unstructured play where children are merely running around, helps them become fitter. It also exposes them early to the need for fitness and physical activity,
When children play with each other or even by themselves, they create imaginary scenarios where everything around them is transformed. Surprisingly children always tend to think without reservation. They think "BIG". There are flying cars and morphing dolls, due to an imagination which is not restricted by being "grwnup". Allowing children to indulge in pretend play fosters this imagination. And it is imagination that grownups like to call "out of the box thinking", a skill that is highly prized.
As you can see, the benefits of letting children play are immense. Unfortunately, in this busy world, free, unstructured play is being sacrificed under the pressure of careers, academics, extra-curricular classes and more. We hope this article will help highlight the importance of not sacrificing play.
1. Ginsburg, Kenneth R., and the Committee on Communications, and the Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health, "The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds", Pediatrics 2007 119: 182-191
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