The many hours that infants and children spend playing are by no means wasted. Play may be fun but it is serious business in childhood. During these hours, the child steadily builds up his competence in dealing with his environment. A child who is born into this world is like a special sponge – bursting with an inner desire to absorb, explore and find out more about the environment into which he is born. Play is a course of exploration and discovery, which occupies the most part of a child’s day. It only stops when he is asleep. In essence, PLAY IS A CHILD’S WORK. Like a working adult who learns to solve problems in the workplace in order to get the work done, the child learns on a small scale through play, the skills necessary for being part of his new environment. Play influences the physical, mental, social, psychological, emotional and linguistic development of the child.
As a child crawls, pulls to stand, walks and runs, he experiences movement. This movement will facilitate the development of more complex physical coordination such as being able to use both hands in a particular activity, for instance running. In running, the child is required to coordinate the swinging movements between the hands and legs.
From the 3rd month of the child’s life, he initiates movement from the shoulder and elbow. However, in these early stages, such movements are limited to inaccurate swiping and hitting. As the child grows, he develops the muscles and strength in the upper and lower limbs and becomes more accurate and purposeful in his movements. When he is older and plays with smaller and more complex toys, he begins to develop the function in the hands.
In imaginative play, a child may pretend to be a nurse, doctor or a fireman. He may also pretend to cook, sew or have a tea party with his friends. Such imaginative play stimulates the child’s thinking processes. This will in turn prepare him for more complex learning situations when he is older.
As children play with one another, they develop an idea of the world around them. They will learn that there are certain rules which have to be adhered to. These rules involve socialization skills such as taking turns at the slide, making friends, the act of giving and taking, sharing or just being friendly. Although the child will seem to be egocentric and always concerned about himself initially, he will learn to develop through the guidance of an adult, preferably the parent.
A child gains confidence and self-esteem when he plays and experiences fun and success in the process. Confidence encourages further exploration and drives the child to experience more challenging activities. Development of confidence will help him better approach challenges as he grows older. The process of dealing with these challenges further develops skills.
Bonding with parents is part of a child’s first stage of emotional development. There is no substitute for this stage of development. Parents should be involved as much as possible during play. This will allow the child to experience security in his new environment. With this secure feeling, the child will be more willing to move out to explore the world with the assurance that there is always someone to rely on should things turn unfavourable.
Language is the medium by which we translate meanings, our thoughts and feelings. Language development starts from day one of birth. Initial attempts at communication are simple and repetitive. As the child develops physically, the language requirements also increase. Children need words and gestures to express ideas and learn to solve problems as they experience new and varied sensations. Language is a unique and wonderful part of play and distinguishes humans as thinking beings in comparison to animals.
The pre-requisites for language development can be reinforced through play. There are numerous opportunities to encourage the following through play:
It is useful to label objects when introducing new words to the child as it will increase his vocabulary. The meaning of the words are further reinforced by encouraging the child to handle the object.
Play also helps children learn and understand basic concepts such as numbers, colours, and spatial positions (left/right and in/out). Such concept development is a crucial starting point in a child’s development as it teaches:
Children have a natural urge to play. Even the poorest and most deprived children delight in play. Play is an essential part of growing up. It helps the child learn and understand the world. Research has shown that children who play are happier children. Each child is unique. Every child has a little personality of his own. As such, every child will act and play in his own unique way, exploring his individual abilities.
Children need a supportive adult and a safe environment to develop their skills and creativity to the fullest. Parents or other caregivers are the first persons a child will relate to. It is therefore very important to spend time with your child to create a close relationship and provide the stimulation needed for his development. Through play, you will learn to get to know him better. It often forms an alternative to pure verbal communication. As the child grows, other people such as friends, family and teachers will play a key role as well.
Play will help your child learn about himself and the environment through assimilation and practice of skills. By creating their own world, children can freely try out and master new situations. For instance, playing with cars, planes and boats will give your child the opportunity to get to know all the modes of transport. Likewise, by playing out scenes, he will get familiar with traffic rules, accidents, speeding and the wonders of staying afloat in the water or being able to imagine that he can fly just like a bird.
Play also helps children to make sense of the world according to their current level of cognitive functioning. Your child may play out some experiences he had, thus making these situations part of his inner world.
Children also form self-identity through play. They learn to exercise control and develop interpersonal relationships. Cultural expectations and roles can be exercised when playing “family”, “hospital” or “school”.
Play also enables children to express their feelings such as anxieties and fears. This can help the child to come to terms with these feelings and relieve stress.
Read more on the different stages of play in babies and children:
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