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Play: A Vital Early Education Tool

Competition to succeed academically and safety concerns have reduced or eliminated recess and free play at many schools. Yet research indicates that play fosters the development of children’s cognitive and social skills. Play teaches creative innovation, collaboration, negotiation, taking turns and teamwork.

“Play is crucial because kids figure out so much in play about the world,” says Roberta Golinkoff, PhD, a University of Delaware education professor and co-author of A Mandate for Playful Learning in Preschool. Experts insist that it is possible to incorporate play into learning, and schools and parents need to get on board.

Play at School

Lynne Rednik, director of early childhood education at M’Kor Shalom Preschool and Kindergarten in Cherry Hill, NJ, believes schools have eliminated play in favor of preparing children for standardized testing that begins in 3rd grade. “Play is a child’s vehicle for learning,” she insists. “Everything that children do should include sensory exploration that they learn through trial and error.”

Classes at M’Kor Shalom include daily free play such as imaginative creations in the kitchen and structured play in which the teacher determines the play activity. For example, each child makes a creative design with  manipulative pegs.

Tara Martello, owner of Grow Through Play in Philadelphia, incorporates play in many disciplines. For example, while learning about Chinese culture, students can stage their own Chinese New Year’s parade.

As children learn about volume and shapes through group block play, they also engage in creative innovation and design. “They are collaborating and learning the social skills that they’ll need to negotiate their way around in the world,” Dr. Golinkoff explains.

The Parents’ Role

Martello urges parents to make time for unplugged, free play. “I’m seeing kids with less ability to problem solve and show creativity,” she says. “For preschoolers, for every half hour of instruction, there should be a half hour or more of vigorous free play without adult instruction.”

Games like tag, dress-up and just running around the playground are important for cognitive learning and social development. Physical play also develops kids’ motor skills. “We’re seeing a lot more kids who don’t have adequate strength and muscle tone,” notes Martello. The campaign to have infants sleep on their backs has reduced SIDS, but parents should know that tummy time and playing on the floor from a very early age lay the foundation for motor development, she says.

Weak motor skills lead to poor handwriting, difficulty sitting up and attention deficits that may lead to behavioral problems.

The Need for Outdoor Play

School recess teaches cooperation, taking turns, settling disputes and other social skills. Rednik acknowledges that safety standards must be followed, but says the benefits far outweigh the risks.

Well-meaning parents may offer adult-structured activities to kids. However, “children need to have down time to figure out who they are, what they like and how to be creative,” Golinkoff concludes.

Terri Akman is a contributing writer to MetroKids.

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