A couple of years ago, The American Pediatric Association issued a directive to all pediatricians to also consider recommending play to the families under their care. I was elated at the notion at first, then saddened that we are currently living in a world that a natural developmental skill is being pushed aside as we need to focus more on productivity and task achievement. Educational systems would note that play is not educationally “relevant”. Parents get the messagethat play is “less important”. Yet, in the larger scheme of school readiness and relatedness, play is instrumental in its’ contribution to development.

Play and Math:

We are born with a number sense that supports us in building an understanding of concepts such as “more or less than”. Research is also clear that visual-spatial development is essential in acquiring math skills. The simplistic view is to think that doing puzzles alone is going to create visual-spatial skill, or that drawing and coloring on paper is going to build visual-spatial skill. The only way a child develops visual-spatial skill is by moving their bodies through the space they are in. When they engage in “building a fortress” with their friends in the backyard or create a house from  a large cardboard box, they have to visually contemplate their construction from their minds’ eye. This visualization includes “seeing” the construction as well as consider the different dimensions of the project from all angels with three-dimensional capacity. The construction, planning of space and material, as well as the consideration of distances between objects, are all building foundational skills for becoming proficient in math later. And the more abstract the child can visualize, the more they can figure out the complexities of math later in their academic career. Are video games enough to build this skill? No, video games are good at building cognitive skill, the mind-mapping is essentially done for the player. It is the use of the body in actionwith a sufficient sense of body awareness that truly builds this proficiency.

Play and Reading:

We are not born with reading skill, we need to acquire this skill through development. When caregivers expose children to stories, they also start the process of building vocabulary, imagination and the process of sequencing a beginning, end and middle of a story. As children first re-create stories they have been exposed to, with their own version of “beginning-middle-and end” sequences,they start to build the capacity of reading comprehension later in life. They also play out their own sequences of their “lived” experiences, such as going to the doctor, the store or feeding the baby. Putting their own experiences into the play enriches the “meaning making” of life and figuring out important emotional developmental milestones that support abstract symbolic understanding of increasingly complex reading material as they traverse their path through different school grades. Concepts are formulated, authority and boundaries are understood, all the while learning to separate reality from fantasy. They also build logical, sequential thinking in the imaginary, abstract world, that leads to understanding the point of view of the author, building empathy for the different characters as well as later building their own point of view separate from the author.

Play and Executive Functioning Skill:

Children need executive functions to plan, organize, be goal oriented and self-regulated in their projects for school. Executive skill requires the same development of what is required for reading and math and also more. When they play and work through themes of power, frustration, overcoming obstacles and figuring out important relationships in their lives, they are steadily working on emotional stability and self-regulation in times of difficulty. The balance between feeling emotions and being able to plan around and through them, together with the modelling of caregivers during difficult times, sets up a regulatory ability that will support perseverance, as well as sustain attention in the learning situation. Children have to negotiate each other’s thoughts and feelings in play.They use divided attention as they negotiate each other’s plots and ideas, while maintaining their own idea. They learn to shift their attention to another idea, all the while building working memory capacity with sustained attention.

We have scratched the surface in this writing. Is play crucial? Absolutely! It is very important for academic skill and the gaps in learning can very readily be traced back to the types of play a particular child engaged in during developing years. Is a child ever too old to revisit what they may have missed? No. We may play in a different way when we are older, but we actually remain playful throughout life, one of the lovely gifts that helps to bring joy and balance into the busy productivity of every day life. If you want to know more about the research, as well as more depth on this matter, you can find a 4 session recorded webinar series here: https://maudeleroux.com/shop/why-is-play-crucial-for-building-skill-recording/

Call anne@atotalapproach.com to schedule an initial phone consultation and talk to us about play and achievement in your child.