The Importance of Play

If you’ve ever visited a Montessori classroom, you may have noticed something odd about the language that is used. Children are invited to choose their ‘work’ from the shelf. They are invited to find work to do with their friend. Why do they talk like that? For parents familiar with play-based preschool programs, this emphasis on “work” seems inappropriate to a preschool setting.

As adults, we often think of “work” as that which we have to do. If it’s “work” by definition, it is not “fun.” Merriam Webster defines work as “an activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a purpose or result.” Play, on the other hand, is defined as “engaging in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose.”

Dr. Maria Montessori, in her research of child development, famously stated, “Play is the work of the child.” Translation: when children play (engage in an activity for enjoyment) they are working (involved in mental or physical effort which achieves a purpose or result).

In other words, when they play, children are working on many things.  

Play helps them develop fine and gross motor skills, improve self-regulation, develop cognitive and intellectual abilities, learn social skills, and increase their ability to imagine and create.

There are so many benefits of play for the developing child. And yet, for a variety of reasons — full calendars, changes in family structure, and increased attention to enrichment activities and academics — children today have less time each day for recess at school and child-led play outside of school. The rise of electronic access to passive entertainment has also stolen time from healthy, active, creative play.

Free-play is different from an arranged play date, participation on a sports team, or adult-led group lessons in music, dance, or sports. While those things are all valuable, children also need unstructured time to engage with other children and their environment. Free-play invites them to imagine, create, negotiate, lead, and relinquish leadership.  

When children are offered time to play without structure imposed by an adult, it creates a space for the child and his/her peers to “be in charge.” There is no adult directing the activity, no adult making the decisions about what will be done next, no adult expectations imposed upon the child, and no assigned tasks. This invites the child to decide what will be done and how will it be done. The child has the freedom to imagine and then execute. To try, to fail, to succeed, to engage with other children in order to accomplish that which they have imagined.  

It encourages them to think and develop problem-solving skills. It gives them real-time feedback and consequences. They envision something that works and are rewarded with the satisfaction of a plan well executed. They attempt something that fails and are given the opportunity to build resilience, to develop evaluation and analysis skills, and then to try again.  

Children who have not had the opportunity to spend much time in unstructured, child-led play may need some practice before it feels natural and comfortable. If they are used to being told what to do and how to do it, calling upon their own creativity may not come easy for them. You are likely to hear, “I’m bored.”  But boredom is not a bad thing — being bored spurs our imagination and invites us to figure out what would give us satisfaction and joy, right here, right now.

At first, they may do nothing, but being still and doing nothing is not a bad thing. Laying in the grass doing nothing but watching the birds and the clouds float by is not a bad thing. Much has been written about the perils of day-dreaming, but research is now discovering the benefits of letting our minds wander. A recent study reported in the journal Learning and Individual Differences that a wandering mind improves creativity and metacognition (understanding of one’s own thoughts). Better understanding of yourself leads to improved self-regulation and enhanced well-being. (Daydreaming is good for adults, too!)

If your child’s day is full from beginning to end, try to find a way to carve out some “down time” when nothing is scheduled so they can just play, without adult direction or involvement. In so doing, they will have the opportunity to imagine, then plan, and then try.  

Where will their imagination and creativity take them? Lots of good places!

Want to learn more about the benefits of play for growing children, visit The Genius of Play.  
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Features of the perfect free-play environment:

Feature: Benefit
Unstructured: Invites children to use their creativity and imagination – to invent the activity all on their own.
Child-led: Lets the child take responsibility for the activity, encourages imagination and creativity, lets them do only what they want to do.
Open-ended: Builds skills in creating processes, procedures, and social interactions when there is no adult decreed task to complete.
Loose Parts: Contains bits and pieces of things that can be used in many different ways to support their play.

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