The Power of Play

Guest Authored By Elysia A, LCSW

Blue Bird Day and Kid Playtime

Why is play so important? Play is a powerful learning tool!

“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” -Fred Rogers

As an adult, we often look for the most effective and efficient way to complete a goal or finish a project. Need to complete a report for work? Let’s gather the information and fill in the required forms as quickly as possible. However, when we are learning a new skill, it is important for us to think about the best ways to acquire the needed information, practice a new way of thinking or doing something, and possibly share that knowledge with others. When you learned to drive, you probably spent some time reading the rules of the road, watching videos, but most importantly, practicing driving with an adult. This time spent practicing allowed you to apply the information you learned in meaningful ways while also deepening your understanding of the rules of the road.  

This same approach is also important for our children. While we can show them pictures of letters or talk to them about numbers, the most powerful way for them to learn new concepts is through hands-on learning activities that are interesting, creative, and engaging. The most powerful approach to support this learning? PLAY!  

Imaginative play allows children to explore their feelings and thoughts, depersonalize difficult topics, and express themselves in various and creative ways. For example, by using puppets a child can act out experiences or challenging emotions they are feeling while creating solutions for the puppets. Play supports children’s innovation, encourages them to reflect and problem solve, and engages all of their senses which can stimulate their thinking.  When children develop their play, they are building their focus and attention in a deeper and more meaningful way while supporting their abstract thinking skills. These are important abilities that will serve them well throughout their lives. Playful learning also supports natural ways to engage peers and build social skills like sharing, turn-taking, and waiting. Children can also think about others’ perspectives as they consider how to build relationships with others. These skills are best learned through hands-on activities. There is no worksheet or flashcard that can support a child’s patience, friendship skills, or the ability to understand others’ emotions quite as effectively as playing with others. 

The next time your child is playing, try to observe how they are engaged with the materials, the activity, or other people. Consider what they might be learning and how they are developing their skills through play. If there is a specific skill you want to support in your child’s development, consider playful ways that are fun but also meaningful. Turn-taking or waiting? Try a game they enjoy like doing puzzles or play dough and add a turn-taking component like “First you put in a piece/cut out some play dough, then it’ll be my turn!” Emotional expression or vocabulary? When things are calm, try using puppets to act out a common scenario that causes emotional challenges for your child. Don’t have a puppet? Try a sock, hand puppets, a stuffed animal, or favorite doll. Or read a story that has an emotional component and ask your child what the characters are feeling or how they could handle the situation. To reinforce learning of numbers and letters, try playing a game like “I spy” where you focus on “I spy a sign that starts with ‘A’…has a ‘3’…etc.” You can also make three-dimensional letters or numbers with clay or play dough or engage fine motor skills to paint them or cut out pictures of letters or numbers from magazines or newspapers.  

Play is the most powerful tool for supporting children’s learning and observing their development. It creates positive opportunities that encourage children’s innovation, creativity, and social-emotional skills. Through play, children can learn important skills like literacy, numeracy, fine motor skills, gross motor abilities, and maintaining focus. Children are simultaneously motivated by play, spend more time thinking about an idea they are playing with, and are challenged to expand their ideas through play. The next time you want to learn or teach a new idea, try engaging play!