With academics and standardized tests becoming increasingly important in elementary schools, play is often put on the back burner. But, it’s important not to underestimate the skills gained from play – skills that will benefit your child in school and beyond. Child-lead play has been shown to have social, emotional, cognitive, and physical benefits that can’t be taught in the classroom. Encourage your child to play often and you will be helping them in ways you may not have expected.
Playing with peers offers a great opportunity for children to gain social skills. Children learn to share, negotiate, and solve problems when playing freely with other children their age. They can also build confidence and leadership skills and practice social rules through play.
While parent or teacher-guided play can have its own benefits, children’s social skills are put to the test during child-lead play. Taking turns and sharing are a common cause of conflict when children play together, but it can be a learning experience. Try to encourage your children find their own solutions when one of these conflicts arises, as long as it doesn’t become too heated.
Research has shown that children who play more often experience less anxiety in new situations, like starting school. This may be because pretend play can help children to learn about new things and even cope with trauma, according to some studies. Having fun together also can be a way for caregivers and children to bond, further developing trust and feelings of security.
Just as children need the freedom to play and learn independently, setting aside some time every day to focus on playing with your child will benefit them as well. Even if it’s just for ten minutes, hide away your phone or any other distractions and have some fun playing together. If your child has something new coming up, such as beginning school or a dentist appointment, use pretend play to help prepare them. Allow your child to use their imagination and have fun, and they may feel more relaxed when the time comes for the actual event.
Narrative learning is the idea that stories can help us to learn new concepts. When your child plays, you may find that they apply something new that they just learned to their pretend play. By imagining it in the context of their story, they are unintentionally finding ways to understand and remember this new idea. Studies have shown that children often do better academically when they have the freedom to follow their interests and apply their new knowledge in a meaningful way. Play promotes creativity and problem-solving skills that will benefit them academically.
While there is much to be learned through play, allow your child to pursue their own interests at playtime. Children don’t play in order to learn, but learning comes naturally when they do. Some parent-guided play will benefit your child if there is something specific you want to teach (colors, numbers, etc.), but allowing your child to cross the imaginary boundaries adults often place on subject matter will make their learning limitless.
Your child can benefit from play physically as well. Experts have been pointing to an increase in screen time as one factor contributing to the increase in obesity in the United States. Playing can also improve your child’s fine motor skills, which helps them academically. Fine motor skills are important in grade school when your child is learning to express their ideas through writing and art.
Getting out and playing at the playground or being involved in sports is a great way for children to get some physical activity in to counteract the increase in screen time. Think of playing games and coloring with chalk as tools to improve your child’s motor skills. Anything that strengthens your child’s pincer grasp – sorting objects, moving board game pieces, puzzles – will help prepare your child for the writing and arts and crafts they will be doing in elementary school. Again, follow your child’s lead, and you will find they do many of these things naturally.
Ginsburg, K. R. (2007). The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds. PEDIATRICS, 119(1), 182–191.
Golinkoff, D. G. S. R. M., & Hirsh-Pasek, K. (2006). Play= Learning: How play motivates and enhances children’s cognitive and social-emotional growth. Oxford University Press.
Hakkarainen, P. (2006). Learning and development in play. Nordic childhoods and early education, 183-222.
My name is John Haber. I’m a Pediatric Occupational Therapist and the founder of Nogginsland. I became a COTA in 2003, and then went back to school much later, receiving my Master’s Degree in OT from Mercy College in New York in 2016.
Over the years, I’ve worked with a variety of populations in different settings, from school districts, to developmental disability centers, to children’s hospitals.