Today's children are often structured, instructed and assigned. Yet, when children guide their own play, it provides a foundation for their mental, physical and cognitive health, through childhood, adolescence and adulthood. Extensive free play is critical to development.
Children learn about themselves and others through play.
Children observe and absorb everything in their environments, imitating the adults, older siblings and friends in their lives. Consider the age-old game of house: Children love to recreate their homes and family dynamics through play, working to understand the world around them. Role playing various members of the household – mom, dad, wife, father, sibling, friend – is the earliest form of putting themselves in someone else's shoes and navigating relationships. They rarely censor, instead imitating both good and bad, taking the opportunity to discern which behaviors feel better and hold more truth. They make important connections and self-identify with the particular roles and situations that guide their interests. Indeed, children grow psychologically – by leaps and bounds – through play.
Free play also encourages and instills the skills of decision-making, self-control and creative problem solving.
Ample, unstructured play with peers helps children to encounter problems they must learn to solve, limits they must learn to accept. The result is a sense of empowerment when they come up with creative solutions. As they learn how to negotiate with their peers, children experience a sense of self accomplishment and control over their lives; they learn to follow rules and to regulate their emotions. Through play, children develop the inner strength of resilience.
Play develops friendships and models positive relations.
Play is social and is the natural way children make, and keep, friends. During social play, they have to recognize their own needs and wants, and those of the other if they want to remain in the game. Children quickly learn that they are not the center of the universe, but are instead an important part of the whole; that more is accomplished through cooperation than with always getting their own way. This process of learning to get along with others, naturally, is among the most important life skills for their future education, recreation, community and employment.
Physical activity is inherent in play.
Movement is paramount in a young child's life. All of us are born with retained reflexes we need to overcome in order to be ready for academic learning. Fine and gross motor skills must be mastered to prepare the brain for intellectual learning. There is a direct link between a variety of physical movements and specific cognitive skills.
Play directly correlates to a child's happiness.
What parent doesn't want their child to be happy? It is probably our number one goal for our children. Being completely lost in the world of imagination allows children stress-free time to decompress. Think back to the happiest times in your own childhood – play is surely at the top of your list. Not all play is equal, though. There are many ways to play – a board game, on a sports team, or a game with specific rules – but studies show that it is the unstructured, free play that has the most impact on a young child's life.
Skipping over this precious learning opportunity is akin to walking before crawling. It is common knowledge among developmental psychologists, occupational therapists, and educators that a child that skips crawling and goes right to walking has developmental gaps that effect their learning and academics. It is not uncommon for such children to have to "go back" and learn to crawl all over again as a form of therapy. So it is with play. Missing this crucial developmental step in the early years contributes to anxiety disorders and a lack of self-confidence in older children and adults.
Play is not a luxury, but a necessity if children are to grow up as confident, capable, and yes, happy adults. It should be on the top of the list of common core standards for early childhood education.
Therese Lederer, MSW, is the Enrollment Director at the Housatonic Valley Waldorf School. She has two children who are Waldorf educated.