Play is vital in the acquisition of early literacy skills. At first babies play alone or with their immediate care giver, then side by side with peers (parallel play). At about the age of two and a half children begin to engage in imaginative play-they pretend, and when they pretend, they tell stories. Stories with plots, action, characters – liner stories with sequence. These stories present the child with a delicate balance of challenges both physically and mentally. In play, as in reading, children grapple with abstract ideas and differing points of view that allow a multitude of opportunities to learn.
The dragon climbs to the top of the highest mountain (the slide) and roars! We all run and the dragon chases us. He’s breathing fire! Where will we hide? In the castle (the tent), the dragon can’t get us there!
In play, children use multiple intelligences: visual, auditory, tactile, and kinesthetic, to experience the joy of storytelling. Play is so important in healthy child development that the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights has called it “The right of every child”. Many children live tightly scheduled lives with very little time for child driven play, and when they do have free time, they often gravitate to passive entertainment such as television or computer/video games. In an effort to raise test scores, more and more schools have cut recess time to concentrate more on academics and formal physical education. Ironically, child development experts have found that reduced time for unstructured play may be a cause for restless anxiety in children that results in falling behind academically. In addition, neuroscientists now know that there are indisputable links between learning and physical activity- in order to be able to process new information the brain needs a balance of activity. Think: All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.
Play drives development. It is the hands on mechanism that children use to learn. In spontaneous play the child expresses what he is currently processing emotionally, intellectually, and physically. When choosing toys, look for interactive items that encourage creativity, such as blocks or dolls instead of passive toys that limit imagination. Advertisers are adept at creating a “cool factor” that encourages acquisition and competition around toys often linked to popular movies. Toys designed to be discarded when the next trend comes around. Free play with timeless toys such as chalk, bubbles, balls, and water itself, is refreshingly outside this foray of manipulative mass marketing and, because these types of toys require hands on exploration, help develop the cognitively flexible skills necessary for readiness to read.
In the attached Ted Talk, Dr. Stuart Brown, a pioneer in research on play and President of The National Institute For Play, speaks of the deep need for play, not only in humans, but in all species:
In honoring the child’s freedom to play, we honor the “whole” child. It is impossible to know what challenges our children will face and what skills will be required of them in the future. But, emotional intelligence, tenacity, the ability to actively engage with others, to focus with keen attention, and to approach problems with creative solutions-skills honed in the playground- have always and will always be critically important.