How Does Play Support Children’s Development?

Tanya 062Author: Melis Emre

Welcome to the second post in All Our Word’s series on the role of play-based learning in family child care! Today we will be discussing some specific ways that play (particularly dramatic, social play) can contribute to children’s cognitive, emotional, and physical development. We’ll also offer some suggestions for how you can help guide the play of the children in your program in an intuitive and instructive way.

Play is an ideal vehicle of instruction in the early years. The reason for this is rooted in biology: because younger children (age 2 to 7) are not able to self-regulate or reason in the same way as older children and adults, lecture-based instruction is simply not an effective (or enjoyable) means of conveying information during early childhood. In fact, studies show that didactic instruction is actually detrimental to children’s emotional wellbeing. In contrast, play-based curricula are capable of a) supporting critical cognitive constructs and capacities, b) engaging children in a developmentally appropriate manner, and c) developing skills vital to success in later education and life (for example, the ability to sustain focus for an extended period of time), all while capitalizing on the natural curiosity and energy that abounds in early childhood.

How exactly can play accomplish all of this? As Psychologist Lev Vygotsky wrote, “In play the child always behaves beyond his average age, above his daily behavior; in play it is as though he were a head taller than himself. As in the focus of a magnifying glass, play contains all developmental tendencies in a condensed form and in itself is a major source of development.” He argued that play, especially sociodramatic or imaginary play, helped children move beyond their actual developmental stage to learn and master new skills like self-regulation and understanding abstract concepts.

The role of play in cognitive, emotional, and physical development

In addition to being an opportunity for joy and exploration, play helps children develop multiple cognitive, emotional, and physical capacities, all of which are crucial to school and lifelong success.

Play fosters children’s ability to create and adapt mental constructs, incorporate information, think abstractly, use executive function, and solve problems, all of which are critical to overall cognition. It allows children to develop their emotional intelligence by allowing them to engage in negotiation, relate to others and practice empathy, practice impulse-control, and regulate their own emotions. Finally, play is often an opportunity to be active, furthering the development of children’s coordination, fine-motor skills, bodily control, and general physical ability.

Play in family child care programs

How can family child care providers encourage the development of these abilities in their programs? Some particularly useful strategies include:

1. Designing play areas that enable child-centered exploration. Children thrive in spaces that encourage them to explore and familiarize themselves with their surroundings without adult interference. Early childhood educators can make children feel more comfortable and in control by providing child-sized furniture and materials and establishing different-themed areas (e.g., Dramatic Play Space, Reading Corner, etc.) that link space and activity type.
2. Monitoring the progress of play. Taking note of scenarios that tend to recur during children’s play can help you plan activities that will engage children and support their development. For example, if you notice that children often play pretend games about exploring underwater, you could find children’s books about sea creatures, or plan a crafting activity about the ocean.
3. Coaching individuals who need help. Every child’s development is unique, and it is inevitable that each child will struggle with cognitive, socio-emotional, or physical skills at some point while in your care. A big part of scaffolding is helping children through such moments. Good coaching strategies include offering children clear and logical explanations where needed, and asking questions to clarify their understanding of concepts and inviting them to contribute solutions (“How else might you do X?” or “Can you think of another way to use Y?”). Whenever possible, encourage them to try new ways of doing things and test things for themselves. Always keep in mind that mistakes are wonderful things, as they present opportunities for learning and growth.
4. Modeling appropriate ways to solve disputes that arise during play. Children learn by example. As a provider, you have an enormous capacity to teach children some of the most important skills they will need in life, and one of the best ways to do this is through demonstration. Children often need guidance in areas like self-regulation and conflict resolution. Next time you notice children struggling to negotiate a disagreement while playing, try showing them what they could do or say to be more successful (e.g. “I know you want to sit in this spot but I was already sitting here when you came over. Maybe you can find another place to sit for now and sit here next time”).
5. Encouraging children to mentor each other during play. One incredible thing about multi-age programs is that they allow for older children to guide younger children in a variety of ways. Giving the older kids in your program the chance to assume teaching or caregiving responsibilities not only allows them to develop strong relationships with the younger children (creating a sense of cohesiveness), but it also helps them learn the value of community and leadership, and what it means to be a productive member of society.

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Now that we’ve covered the specifics of how play shapes cognitive, emotional, and physical ability, we can use what we’ve learned to analyze some real examples of play in our programs—come back in a few weeks to get a glimpse at play-based learning in the homes of our very own providers!

Melis is a recent graduate of Yale (’13) who currently works at the Yale Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering. Her interest in early childhood care and education began during her senior year when she spent a semester at Calvin Hill Daycare and Kitty-Lustman Findling Kindergarten. She wrote her thesis on the role of play in the development of young children, and continues to contribute to the field through her involvement with All Our Kin’s Read, Count, Grow initiative.

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