Your child doesn’t ask herself why she plays. She simply enjoys doing it, that’s all. So if playing comes naturally to children, it’s because they need it in order to develop normally.
Your child doesn’t ask herself why she plays. She simply enjoys doing it, that’s all. So if playing comes naturally to children, it’s because they need it in order to develop normally and discover the world around them.
“Play is necessary for a child’s overall development,” says Rolande Filion, educational psychologist and play specialist. At birth, your child’s brain has billions of neurons. But for these neurons to become functional, they need to interconnect. These interconnections are made through the experiences and stimulation your toddler is exposed to. When your child plays, the neurons in her brain are working hard to interconnect and record knowledge. According to Francine Ferland, occupational therapist and author of books on play, playing is like a super-vitamin, in that it has positive effects on every aspect of child development. For example:
- Motor and sensory development. Play stimulates the senses. When a child manipulates and looks at objects, and even when she puts them in her mouth, she discovers colours, textures, shapes, sounds and tastes. She notices, for example, that objects can be smooth, rough, soft, square, round, big or small. When she draws or cuts things out, she develops her fine motor skills. And when she plays catch with a ball or puts together a puzzle, she improves her hand-eye coordination. Running, jumping, somersaulting also strengthen her muscles, physical endurance and balance.
- Cognitive development. Thinking, memory, creativity and the ability to problem-solve are other skills your toddler develops through play. When she plays with different-sized action figures, she gradually learns concepts like “smaller than” or “bigger than.” When she plays at puppets with a friend, she develops her imagination. And when you have fun hiding her rattle under a towel and then making it reappear, she learns that objects continue to exist even when she can’t see them anymore.
- Social development. Playing with your child also teaches her to live in harmony with others. For example, at the park she might be impatient to slide, but there are three friends in front of her. There’s nothing she can do about it. She has to practice waiting her turn. When a friend comes over to play, she learns to share her toys. By playing with others, your child develops all sorts of social skills that are essential for living in society: helping, asking questions, recognizing and naming emotions, compromising, settling conflicts, etc. “Through play, your child can also learn to express negative emotions like anger or sadness through the imaginary characters she invents,” says Josiane Caron Santha, occupational therapist.
- Language development. When she plays, your child learns new words. She also learns to listen to others, to express her ideas and to be understood.
Fun above all
Try to avoid turning play into an educational activity. The most important thing is to have fun together.
Even though your child learns a lot from play, fun should generally be the name of the game. Children don’t play in order to learn something but rather to enjoy themselves. “The word ‘play’ evokes the idea of happiness and joy,” says Josiane Caron Santha. “For a game to remain a game, the child must want to play it. There shouldn’t be any clearly established goals, either, or else the game will become an exercise instead.”
What about educational toys, then, that say they improve vocabulary or logic, for example? For Rolande Filion, this is a marketing strategy to encourage you to buy these toys, but they’re not necessarily better than any others. “In reality, almost all toys can be educational, since a child can pretty much always learn something from play,” she says. Her advice would be to offer various types of toys and especially ones where the child is mentally and physically active. This includes toys that allow children to use their imagination, to sort, to assemble or build, to catch, to pedal, and so on. It does not include battery-powered toys where all the child has to do is press a button!
To have fun, children don’t need hundreds of toys – in fact, they can enjoy themselves without any toys at all, as Alexandre Provost, father to 17-month-old Jessy, has learned. “My son loves playing hide-and-seek with me, he also has great fun going up and down the stairs, and in the bathtub he entertains himself by filling up and emptying out containers. Last summer, he spent ages washing pebbles and placing them in a bucket.” At the moment, Jessy loves pushing pompoms through two holes poked in the lid of an empty yogurt pot—an idea of mom’s. He never gets tired of it! As you can see, you really don’t have to spend a fortune to encourage your child to play!
One of 2-year-old Loïc’s favourite games is chasing after his mom or dad outside. “We ask him to exaggerate his movements, such as lifting his legs up extra high, and he finds it hilarious,” says his mom, Valérie Lamarche. This is a great idea, as games where children are physically active promote their motor development and are excellent for their health. “A good way to get kids moving is to take them outside,” says Geneviève Gagné, a consultant with Québec en Forme. “Children are more active when they’re outdoors since they can explore their environment. The simple fact of being outside encourages activities that require them to use energy, such as jumping, running, climbing and doing somersaults.”
Unfortunately, parents are letting their children play outside on their own less and less nowadays, because they’re afraid they’ll hurt themselves, says the organization ParticipACTION, which has led studies on the matter. But the health risks are actually greater when you keep children inactive indoors. The organization therefore recommends giving children more freedom to play outside, which means letting them climb, somersault, play rough-and-tumble or practice balancing on tree trunks. They’ll develop their confidence and autonomy, and learn how to better assess risks. Of course, they might get a few scratches and grazes, but it’s usually nothing serious!
Source: Naître et grandir magazine, December 2015
Research and copywriting: Nathalie Vallerand
Scientific review: Sarah Landry, Professor, Department of Educational Psychology and Adult Education at Université de Montréal