Play for Success: Why, What, When and How

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Nowadays, it seems that many children are loaded with homework and various enrichment sessions. While I have nothing against extracurricular activities and actually enroll my children in a few, I find that many others have less and less time to play with friends or on their own (and I don’t mean using the iPad for hours on end). In our school, we believe in the importance of play and use it to impart many things, both academic and not, to our children.

Why play?

            Because it is their language, children are more receptive and open when engaged in play. Because it is fun for them, experiences have a greater impact and a lasting impression on children. For our preschoolers, the goal is for them to develop holistically. Through play, we are able to achieve this as one activity can address the different developmental domains. Let us illustrate this with the use of simple, wooden blocks.

  • Cognitive– Depending on your goals, you can have your child count the blocks while stacking, group blocks according to color, talk about “big and small” as you compare blocks, increase vocabulary as you build castles, fortresses, towers, bridges and houses.
  • Physical– Improve fine-motor skills by stacking blocks, building bridges and the like. You can use bigger blocks, stack them and have your child jump over, step over or hop over to improve his or her gross-motor skills.
  • Interpersonal – Aside from academic skills, our school places utmost importance to socio-emotional development. People skills are vital for when our kids go out into the world. Through group play with blocks, children learn to take turns, share and even cooperate to build taller and bigger structures.
  • Intrapersonal – As important it is for children to practice socializing with others, it is vital that they grow inwards as well. When they successfully stack more blocks, their self-esteem is boosted. When their towers fall, they learn how to deal with frustration and realize that they can always try again. As they build more detailed castles and houses, their imagination grows and their creativity is put to good use. As they engage in group play, they learn to manage their emotions when they cannot have their own way and would need to give others a chance.

More than using play to teach a lesson, play can help us learn so many things about our children. As you observe your child build towers, you learn what words he or she already knows. You see through his or her structures, his concept of what a tower is. As you engage your child in play, you see how he or she views the world around. You learn about his or her likes, dislikes, strengths and even weaknesses.

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What to play?

There are different types of play and it changes as our children grow. As the kids in our school go through these different stages, we present them with age-appropriate materials and activities for play. We keep in mind though that children develop at different rates. Some 2 and 3 year olds in our school love to play pretend and even assign characters to each other.

  • solitary– Young children, toddlers at about the age of 1-2 play on their own. In school, we let the children explore shakers, bang on drums, pick up balls from the floor to put inside a basket, string oversized beads, tear and crumple paper, paint with their hands and fingers among so many other activities!
  • parallel – From playing on their own, 2-3 year olds now play beside others though still absorbed in their own activities. At this age, we give children peg boards, 2-3 piece puzzles, blocks, lacing toys, crayons, props for dramatic play.
  • Associative– Similar to parallel play, children are in the same area and preoccupied in their own tasks but involved in the same activity. Picture two children building their individual buildings to create a city of blocks together. In school, children are given blocks, clay and other things they can manipulate.

cooperative – As they become aware of their classmates and learn how to express themselves to others, play turns into a group activity. In school, we give them big puzzles, an area for dramatic play wherein they can assign roles and we facilitate group games that will allow them to follow rules and “cooperate” with teammates.

play3When to play?

Play can definitely be at any time of the day. You can tickle and sing to your child as she wakes, pop bubbles as you bathe and play i-spy during your bedtime story. However, one of the more important things that young children must learn is that there is a time for everything. There is time to play, there is a time for sleeping, eating and there is time for work. It helps when we make some sort of routine so that children know what to expect. They clearly see that there are different activities within the day and they are guided through the transitions that help them manage their emotions. In the school and even at home, I give my kids many opportunities for play from morning until the afternoon. The evenings are usually reserved for more quiet activities but I am flexible especially when my husband comes home late and the girls want to pretend play with him. I just make sure that I give them time to calm down before bedtime. Like in school, when active play comes before more focused activities such as doing an activity sheet, we help the children transition through the use of routine songs or storytelling.

HOW to play?

There’s no right or wrong way to play with your children. You can make use of manipulatives such as puzzles, peg boards and lacing toys. You can use wooden blocks, lacing toys, water blocks and old shoeboxes. You can use pretend food, bowls and wooden spoons from your kitchen, old costumes and cardboard boxes. You don’t even have to use toys to play. You can use just your bodies to play mirror games, Follow the Leader and Simon Says.

In school and at home we try to have a mix of UNSTRUCTURED and STRUCTURED play. The first one is when we give the children freedom to choose their toys and the kind of play they want to be involved in. Structured is when you prepare the environment and maybe even the activity or play because you have a goal in mind, For example, we have the toddlers cross a bridge of blocks and crawl under a table as part of a Follow the Leader game because we want to exercise their gross motor skills. Unstructured play brings about much learning too as it is a time when they make decisions for themselves and try their hand at problem solving. As much as possible, give your child opportunities for both in a day.

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The most important thing to remember when you’re playing with your child is to be intentional. Set a time for your child and really be there sans your mobile phone and other distractions. Be in the moment whether it is for an hour or just ten minutes. Whether you’re using store bought toys or things lying around your house, the more important thing to give attention to is the relationship that you’re building.

We all have different definitions of success. In the book The Millionaire Next Door, factors that helped many millionaires succeed were ranked. Educational attainment ranked No .20 while people skills was in the top 5. There’s no better time to teach our children how to socialize than when they are in preschool. There’s no better way to teach them how to cooperate, play fair, negotiate, take turns, be expressive and humble enough to apologize than when they are engaged in play,

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