By Elise Gooi

For most, the thought of play brings one back to a simpler time, conjuring fond memories of childhood pastimes accompanied by carefree bliss. Though play is universally accepted as being a part of every childhood, it is often misunderstood to be unproductive or trivial. Thankfully, the importance of play has strong foundations in research. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states that the opportunity to engage in play is every child’s right and many experts, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, advocate for children’s access to free time and free play. This is because play promotes learning across all domains – cognitive, physical, social and emotional – and is essential for optimal development, especially in early childhood, as 90% of a child’s critical brain development occurs by the age of five.

How do children learn through play?
In early childhood, children at every stage literally make sense of their world through their senses. Whether it is the infant mouthing objects, the toddler banging on pots and pans, or the preschooler hunting for insects in the backyard, exploration is at the heart of play.
 Physical –  How a child initially explores will largely be dependent on what he/she is capable of physically. An infant starts learning to explore his/her surroundings when accompanied by a trusted adult and provided a safe environment. From tummy time to the tummy crawl, or the unsteady toddle to the eventual walk, run, and gallop, open play spaces and opportunities for unstructured play become physical arenas for children to discover, practice and refine their ability to control their body’s large and small movements (gross and fine motor development, respectively).
Cognitive – As children continue to explore their surroundings with their expanding physical skillset, their cognitive abilities concurrently broaden and deepen. The infant that is mouthing objects is passively taking inventory of different textures. The toddler banging on pots and pans is beginning to experiment, noticing how the sound changes with the use of different mallets and varying force. The preschooler hunting for insects problem solves instinctively, realizing she must adjust her catching technique in order to capture the grasshopper. As children use their senses to explore their surroundings, the improvisational nature of play requires them to observe, make connections, experiment with cause-and-effect relationships, and think creatively to solve impromptu problems.
Social and Emotional – Infants are taught the basics of social interaction – that it is a back-and-forth exchange – when meeting a parent’s warm gaze or hearing an adult respond to his/her coo. Eventually, the child develops a stronger self image (e.g., recognizing him/herself in the mirror, developing likes and dislikes) and begins to take notice of not only him/herself, but ultimately his/her peers, becoming increasingly interested and engaged in social play. As the child matures, play will expose him/her to new and varied social situations, ultimately providing opportunities to develop confidence, the comfort to take risks, the understanding of what it means to “play by the rules,” and chances to learn and practice communicating and resolving conflicts.

Not only is play necessary for the healthy growth and development of children, but joining in play also promotes a healthy bond between you and your child! Here are tips you can use to encourage quality play at home:

Limit screen time: Watching TV or playing video games is a form of passive entertainment and is not recommended for young children. Try to find alternatives that will both stimulate and entertain your child, such as playing a board game or reading a book.

Promote child-directed play: Whether it is your toddler that begins dumping and filling his basket of stuffed animals or your four-year-old that picks up a stick and pretends it is a flashlight, join your child in play and follow their lead!

Encourage open-ended play: Instead of suggesting a close-ended activity (like the putting together of a puzzle) try providing toys that do not prescribe a particular outcome, but encourages the child to manipulate the toy in different ways (e.g., LEGOs play dough, blocks, balls, pretend play props, etc.). When it comes to art experiences, try switching out the coloring book for blank pieces of paper and draw out your child’s creativity!

Not only is play inherently fun and enjoyable, it is a purposeful way you can bond with your child. You can rest assured in knowing that engaging your child in open-ended free play welcomes him/her to a myriad of opportunities that promote learning and growth. n

For more information, contact Child Care Resource and Referral at 1-800-308-9000 or www.azchildcare.org.

Movement and Early Childhood Learning
By Aimee J. Burton

Movement has a meaningful connection to early childhood learning and brain development. Several studies have shown that when a child crawls, tumbles, climbs, rolls, etc., the brain becomes more fibrous, creating a higher capacity for learning.
Regardless of coordination or athletic ability, all children benefit from this type of movement-inspired learning as it directly impacts a child’s brain development.

Along with brain development, the main areas of motor development have practical applications as well:
• Gross motor skills help a child move in a variety of patterns.
• Laterality helps develop a child’s ability to follow words across a page in preparation for reading.
• Balance helps children to sit and stand still, allowing for focused learning.
• Auditory skills (such as responding to sounds with specific movements) help children to listen and follow directions.
• Visual skills (responding to a mark or target with deliberate physical movements) help children to follow directions and prepare the brain for reading.
• Strength and endurance help children to focus and stay on task.

Movement inspired learning activities can include everything from gymnastics classes to dancing with friends, Twister type games, or classics like “Red Light, Green Light.”

Aimee J. Burton is owner and director of Xtreme Gymnastics – home of the Move-N-Learn Preschool, xtremegymnastics.com.

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