The power of play: it's much more than fun and games
Dearbhala Cox Giffin suggests ways in which you can help your little one's development
Never underestimate the importance and value of play as a key foundation stone underpinning children's learning and development. From very early in life, children show a natural desire to move, explore and play, starting with very simple peek-a-boo games as a baby and becoming more complex as role play and imaginative play as your child grows. Play is more than meets the eye and has multiple benefits for children of all ages, enhancing their imaginations, promoting language development and social skills and refining their co-ordination and physical skills. Play and learning are not separate activities but go hand in hand.
While children need time to play alone and with other children without adult intervention, playtime with parents is also important. As parents, you are the primary supporters of your children's learning. You can make sure they have as much time to play as possible during the day and also strive to make some time to play with your child on a regular basis. Children crave time with their parents and love when adults join in with their play. For most children their play is natural and spontaneous although some children may need extra help from adults.
Encourage Outdoor Activities
For young children, play is often a full-body activity that helps them develop skills they will need later in life. Running, dancing, climbing, rolling - these activities all foster muscle development and help fine-tune motor skills. Children also build their mental and emotional muscles as they create elaborate, imaginative worlds rich with a system of rules that govern the terms of play.
To enjoy outdoor play as a family, choose an activity that will work for everyone. The simplest option is to get outdoors and take a family walk, jog, or bike ride and use a jogging buggy or child seat on the bicycle for younger children or they could ride their tricycles or bikes around the park while you walk or jog. It's great for all the family and it's free. Physically active children have lower levels of body fat, lower cholesterol, and a reduced risk of developing Type 2 diabetes in later life and paediatric studies show a link between regular, physical activity in children and an increase in cognitive ability. There's a double dividend as not only does playing and being physically active develop stronger muscles and bones, improve emotional wellbeing, and promote better sleep patterns for children, but you get fit at the same time. Remember your own outdoor experiences of building forts, playing on the beach, digging for worms and making huts, or playing with other children in the neighbourhood. Make sure your children have the opportunity to create outdoor memories too.
Capture their Curiosity
Children are naturally curious, inquisitive and keen to learn so try to enhance these natural lines of enquiry and create lots of play opportunities at home. Avoid screens and devices if possible and encourage screen-free play instead, using all the everyday resources that are accessible in the home which can be fascinating for children to explore. Plan a mix of physical and creative activities, story time, messy play and learning games. It helps to plan your activities around the time your child is most energetic, for example, after an afternoon nap or before lunch.
Role play and imaginative play
Dressing up is one of the joys of childhood as it is simply great fun to dress up in any kind of costume and let the imagination flow, often the more ridiculous or extreme superhero, or the more 'princessy', floaty and fun, the better. Today your child may be a cowboy, tomorrow a superhero and the following day an astronaut, as children love pretending to be someone else. Whilst many younger children love trying on shoes, hats or dresses, they quickly move to more elaborate role play from about three years old and onwards as they recall the details of a fairy tale or story they have heard before acting it out, linking costumes to various role types.
In imaginative play, let your child lead and develop the theme. Get into their world and join in without taking over. Play along, be silly along with them and you'll all have lots of fun. Try to avoid over-stimulation; you'll know when your child is becoming over tired and it's time to wind down the activity.
Family game night
For older children this is a great tradition that is easy to start. Choose an evening and make it family game night and select board or card games that are age appropriate. Gradually add games that can be fun for the entire family and take turns choosing the game to play but remember to make sure the games are appropriate for the youngest player. This provides time to bond as a family and to enjoy friendly competition, learning how to take turns and also how to be a good loser as well as a winner, which can often be a challenge.
Play helps your children grow emotionally and it's a great stress buster both for children and adults. So take a break from the screens for an hour or two after dinner a few times a week and make time to play.
Dearbhala Cox Giffin is Director of Childcare at Giraffe, giraffe.ie