While the volume of research on the benefits of play-based learning has been rapidly growing over the past decade, studies show many parents round the world are still unaware of the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of play children need.
Scientists discover play profoundly improves children's ability to prepare for life. University of Lethbridge researchers in Alberta, Canada find play develops neuron connections and helps attune a brain's executive control centre which in turn aids emotional maturity, problem-solving and planning ability.
In other studies, researchers found a close link of children's academic performance in secondary school to social skills developed in Primary Three, and that children from schools with longer recess breaks were more likely to do better academically than those in schools with short ones.
What is play?
Ms. Low Siew Hong, Head of Department for Professional Qualification at SEED Institute, says play for children is a necessary journey of self-discovery which provides an outlet for energy and accessing new learning dimensions.
Play can be defined by an enjoyable activity of choice. Parents can see if a child is playing by observing if the child is focused on the activity or expressing joy.
Sometimes, even the most mundane of actions can be considered as play too, such as when a child attempts to repetitively pour water from one container to the other. This action allows him/her to master simple skills and improve psychomotor capabilities. Repetitive play allows a child to master a skill.
"Children need to start playing from the time they are born," says Ms. Low, a Masters graduate in Early Childhood Care and Education with over 25 years’ experience in the early childhood sector.
"For example, when a baby seated on a high chair drops an object and waits for you to pick it up - that's a form of play. Parents should just go along with this interaction and understand that it is natural behaviour for babies to explore how they can manipulate things with different parts of their bodies."
While play is no doubt important, Ms. Low says it can be significantly more constructive for a child's development when parents get involved in the play.
"It is critical that parents interact with their children during play. This is a lot more important than just buying the most expensive toys," says Ms. Low.
In the case of infants and toddlers, Ms. Low advises parents to not merely observe but engage their children. For example, describe what you are doing as you are changing your baby's diaper or when your toddler is eating with a spoon, you can describe the action to your child ("You are using the spoon to stir the soup."). This helps the child to associate what he/she is doing with the language, a critical element in cognitive development. Ms. Low adds that children who have more exposure to language in the early stages tend to do better in school.
"This is similar to depositing money in the bank -- in this case you're depositing the language in the child's brain. Look at it as an investment because when you spend this quality time with them now, you will reap the rewards later," says Ms. Low.
For children who are older and can already speak, Ms. Low recommends that parents encourage them to think of solutions to a problem during play. For example, when a toy accidently rolls under the sofa, the parent can first show the child the problem at hand (that the toy is unreachable) before working with them to come up with possible solutions.
"By encouraging them to come up with solutions, we are helping to build their thinking and social-emotional skills such as perseverance. It also reinforces the value of hard work. These are important life skills," says Ms. Low.
While there are several technical definitions to different play styles, Ms. Low says that parents can consider two aspects, i.e. outdoor and indoor play, with the former being "very, very critical" to development.
Getting out of the flat or house and into the sun is particularly important because it allows children to practice physical skills such as running, jumping, throwing and climbing, as well as help improve children's fitness level. Research has shown that children who often play outdoors are more likely to be happier and healthier.
But apart from physical conditioning, outdoor play also positively impacts children's cognitive and social-emotional development. After all, outdoor spaces like playgrounds are where children would most likely interact with others and create their own games.
"Research has shown that children who don't get enough physical play are more likely to fidget excessively and may have difficulty focusing when required to be seated for long periods in school. You need to let kids expend their energy," says Ms. Low.
"It's the same as boiling a pot of water. If you don't take the lid off, the water is going to explode."
Studies have also shown that children should be encouraged to play with others as it builds social skills. For example, an older child who is appointed as the "leader" of a team gets to learn about the aspects of being a role model or team members learn how to collaborate and take turns.
Home is also an important space for learning, considering that is where children would spend most of the day. Ms. Low says that "pretend play" is an excellent indoor activity that helps children develop new perspectives to matters while improving their psychomotor skills.
When children pretend to be, say, a waiter and a customer, they are essentially putting themselves in the shoes of another person and learning to empathise. One child learns how to decide what she wants to eat and communicates her orders, while another improves his memory and listening skills when taking orders. He also works on his physical skills when he balances a tray of food while serving. Here, the children also gain a boost in confidence when acting beyond their age.
Home is also where toys are most likely to be played and Ms. Low says that parents should opt for open-ended ones that can be manipulated such as building blocks or dough as this provides more avenues for learning, including physical, creative thinking and problem-solving skills.
Listening to music, singing, dancing or art and craft activities are also vital to young children's holistic development. Young children need and enjoy movement and sensorial experiences. Playing with materials like dough, sand, water and paint have calming and therapeutic effects on children.
Seeing families in food courts or restaurants give their children digital devices to keep them busy is now common in this digital age. The benefits of tablet usage however remains on debate. While some experts say such devices can help children improve vocabulary and math through interactive content, others say tablet usage only inhibits social connection.
While Ms. Low is not completely against children using tablets, she stresses parents must never leave them alone with the device for long stretches of time. Again, as with all the other types of play, there must be adult interaction. When watching a programme on the tablet, parents can sing along with their child or explain what is happening.
Ms. Low also recommends that parents limit the usage of such devices to just 10-15 minutes for young children as it can affect eyesight, citing the fact that Singapore has one of the world's highest number of childhood myopia cases in seven to nine-year olds.
Understanding your child
Another piece of advice that Ms. Low has for parents is for them to acknowledge their child's unique personality.
She says that children can generally be classified into three broad temperaments, with the first being the "active" type who have more energy and don't seem to tire despite hours of physical activity. The second is the "easy-going" sort who don't seem to mind even if strangers carry them. The third is the "shy, reserved" type who may require time to warm up to people and the surroundings.
While shy and reserved children may at times pose problems when it comes to group play, Ms. Low says that the key is not to rush them into the situation.
"Don't pressure them. Spend time to introduce them to the environment and the different people around. Active children will also be able to settle down and focus after they have had time for outdoor physical play."
"You need to understand your child's temperament and cater accordingly. Don't expect your child to be like you if your temperament is different. Else, you're in for a lot of headaches," says Ms. Low.
"Take time to observe, understand and appreciate your child's temperament and needs, then you will be able to enjoy your relationship better."
About Ms Low Siew Hong
Ms. Low Siew Hong is the Head of Department for Centre for Professional Qualification at SEED Institute, overseeing the quality delivery of early childhood professional qualification programmes from certificate to diploma. With more than 30 years of experience in the early childhood sector, she holds a Bachelor of Science in Kindergarten and Elementary Education and a Masters in Early Childhood Care and Education.
Ms. Low is also the key consultant and facilitator for the PLAY Programme, jointly developed and organised by the Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA) and People's Association Family Life Champions (PA-FLC).
Video: Skills Learnt Through Play
We often talk about children learning through play experiences, but what does that really mean? Here, Dr Chan Lin Ho from Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS) shares about what children learn from play activities, and how you can help guide your little one along.