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Play is the key ingredient that no pre-school program could be without

By: Yenny Disla-Toone

“Play is the key ingredient that no preschool program could be without”
We’re just a few weeks into the new school year, but the sights and sounds of children playing are brightly reverberating through the halls of each of Family Centers’ Early Education locations. To us, the development of children is serious business, and we reinforce and encourage this belief through the exploration of playful activities that bring joy to kids of any age. Play is at the heart of Family Centers’ accredited learning curriculum, and children spend their days rotating at their own pace through structured play, free play, game playing, outdoor play and individual play.

But “play” becomes a four-letter word every time researchers question its validity. The founder of the National Institute for Play, Stuart Brown, has described play as “anything that spontaneously is done for its own sake.” More specifically, he says it “appears purposeless, produces pleasure and joy, [and] leads one to the next stage of mastery”.

The premise of this definition is woven into the fabric of our Early Care and Education program. We build on the notion that children of early childhood age are like sponges. The children in our program fascinate us daily with the amount of information that they can absorb. We have found that while the capacity for this feat is within every young child, the path for that absorption is forged through play.

Children learn through play, and the world around them becomes their true classroom. As children play out scenes of family members cooking, they relive a fond moment they had at home but also show us that they know that the stove is hot, and they must use their oven mitts to take their freshly baked play-doh “pie” from the oven. The art of this imaginary play allows a child to learn the concept of exposing food to dry heat and how that exposure can transform basic ingredients into something delicious. All of that concept development is learned and assessed thru play.

The National Accreditation on the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) published five elements essential to meaningful play that create those rich memories we treasure:

1. Children make their own decisions.
When children choose how to play for themselves, they experience freedom in making those choices.
2. Children are intrinsically motivated.
The impulse to play comes from a natural desire to understand the world. This play impulse is as strong as your child’s desire for food or sleep.
3. Children become immersed in the moment.
In true play, children are so fully engaged that they lose awareness of their surroundings, time, and space. In this risk-free atmosphere where reality is suspended, children have the security and safety they need to experiment, try new ideas, and investigate the laws of nature.
4. Play is spontaneous, not scripted.
Often, play is totally unplanned. Other times, play is planned but a child impulsively makes a change. One child changes his mind, or perhaps a toy does not cooperate. This sense of the unknown provides children with opportunities to develop flexibility in their thinking and decision making, which is a vital life skill.
5. Play is enjoyable.

Play always has an emotional response attached to it. Without this emotional connection, the experience is simply an activity; it is not PLAY. Enjoyment is the direct result of engaging in play. It is FUN!
Children get a chance to create and add to the world around them through play. Staying with the baking analogy, we know that before they placed their pie in the oven, a mental planning took place as what would be made today. A teacher or parent may have supported conversation on what the child wanted to make, which then sparked the creation of a list of items needed for that pie and proceeded by the immediate collection of those items from their kitchen area to prep. A concept that helped expand the child’s cognitive and language development. As play occurs connections are being made in the brain which lay the foundation for future learning. So, play has mental real-estate with high value in the lives of children.

In our programs play is used to teach lessons, settle disagreements with peers, transition between activities, increase skill development and to make connections in the brain that build a foundation for future learning. That’s a lot of work happening while a child may just appear to be playing with play-doh.
“Yet, while experts continue to expound a powerful argument for the importance of play in children’s lives, the actual time children spend playing continues to decrease. Today, children play eight hours less each week than their counterparts did two decades ago (Elkind, 2008).”

Now that we know the value of play, I encourage parents, teachers and all significant people in the lives of young children to put down their overburdened agendas and make time to play with the young child in your life. Adding this key ingredient will produce a happy healthy child!

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