We send our children to school to learn. But did you know that they’re also learning when they’re playing?
Play isn’t just good for your kid’s body. Play actually helps your child’s brain grow and learn.
By play we don’t just mean organized team sports. And we definitely don’t mean sitting in front of a screen playing computer or video games! Healthy play means making sure your child uses her body and mind in active, imaginative play—like playing hide-and-seek, riding a bike, building with blocks or Legos, pretending to be a pirate or princess, building a fort, playing dress-up—all activities that come naturally to kids. This kind of play develops a child’s ability to think creatively, use her imagination, work as a team member, and create and follow rules. Kids need unstructured time to build, create, and fantasize.
There’s been plenty of scientific research over the years proving that play has an important role in children’s development and their ability to learn. So whether it’s pretend play, sports, outdoor time, or recess time—let the kids play!
Here are a five ways kids grow their minds and bodies through play:
Whether it’s shooting pretend enemies or playing with the dollhouse, there’s a whole lot going on when young kids use their imagination in play. Pretend play uses many parts of the brain, including language, movement, emotion, and thinking. It also helps kids figure out how things work and how they fit into the world, and it lets them explore new roles. Research has shown that kids who gets lots of pretend playing time are better at complicated thinking (known as “abstract thought”) and are more social. And you thought she was just playing with dolls!
Playing blocks may turn your kid into a math genius? Well, that might not quite be true. But there’s no question that playing is not only fun but that it has long-term effects on kids’ learning. In one study, researchers studied preschoolers who played with blocks and followed those same kids through high school. They found that by high school, the kids who played blocks had higher scores in math. Another study found that playing with blocks (or other construction toys) boosts problem-solving skills in kids.
How does playing Chutes and Ladders or Candy Land help your child? Board games teach kids about rules, decision making, taking turns, and social skills. The games can also help your child work on important early math skills like counting, as well as color and shape recognition.
Unfortunately, lots of schools are cutting back on recess to squeeze in more class time. But kids learn more if they’ve had a chance to play outside during the day. Studies have found that kids get less attentive as the day goes by without a break. When they have a recess break, they’re far more focused.
Recess also lets kids improve their social and communication skills, by learning to work together as they make up games and decide on rules, and by learning to resolve fights. So don’t let anyone tell you that recess is a waste of time—there’s important learning going on!
With television, computers, and video games keeping kids inside, many are missing out on the joys of climbing on playground structures and trees, jumping in leaves, and simply running outdoors. Playing outside actually boosts kids’ academic achievement and improves their behavior.
Studies have shown that being outside also pushes kids’ imaginations and lowers their stress. Their pretend play becomes more intricate and diverse than when they just play indoors. Even when their mud-pie days are over, kids do better outdoors.
Students at schools that have an outdoor component score higher in critical thinking skills, math, reading, and behavior. Also, kids who have had little outdoor time tend to not do as well in the sciences in college. So even if you live in the city, get the kids out to your local park or playground for some regular outdoor play.