The Power of Play: The cognitive benefits of playtime for preschoolers

February 27, 2017 | Posted in: Early Learners, Elementary

“They grow up so fast.” – every parent, ever.

Whether it’s the first day of school, high school graduation or marriage, you would be hard-pressed to find a parent that wouldn’t swear their child has grown up in the blink of an eye.

If it seems as if today’s children are growing up faster than previous generations, it’s because, in a sense, they are. And it begins before they even enter grade school.

In our ever-competitive world, many parents increasingly feel the pressure to get their child into a good preschoolone that will prepare their child for the academic rigor they will encounter when they eventually enter grade school.

With the rise of preschools that place a greater emphasis on the academic, some programs are seeing a decline in the curriculum’s free playtime.

According to a recent study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), despite the benefits derived from play for children, time for free play continues to be markedly reduced.

“Presently, there is a huge push to ready children for kindergarten and focus only on academics,” says Heather Stewart, owner/founder of Apple Blossom Bunch, a daycare and preschool in Saratoga Springs, NY. “I believe daycare and Pre-K programs should have a hand in readying the whole child for kindergarten – which includes their social, emotional, physical and cognitive well-being.”

Stewart, who is Lifeways/Waldorf Early Childhood certified and holds a bachelor’s degree in Interdisciplinary Studies, is working toward a degree in Education Studies with a concentration in Administering Early Childhood Programs.

“By taking a balanced approach to learning, children can, for example, develop letter and number recognition, master the sounds of letters, and begin to understand early math through spending time in the community on field trips and learning hands-on in nature. With free play, children are able to develop these kind of skills in a way that is developmentally appropriate,” said Stewart.

The Power of Play

“Playtime is essential to the cognitive development of an early learner. When children play, it allows them to process the world at their own pace. Young children are not wired to share their feelings and thoughts at length, so they use play to process their emotions,” said Stewart.

“Children who play daily build strong cognitive skills and are aided with better attention spans, problem-solving abilities and self-regulation skills,” said Stewart.

Stewart says the mission of daycare/Pre-K teachers should be to “encourage childhood joy.”

“Fostering the child’s relationship development with their peers, teachers, family, the community, and reinforcing their sense of self is all very important in today’s world. This is all possible through play. With hands-on learning, these skills are nurtured appropriately.”

For example, for infants, playtime items like pots, pans and wooden spoons help early learners explore their classroom. “These play opportunities help babies develop their fine and gross motor skills, while also familiarizing them with everyday items,” said Stewart.

For toddlers, she continued, “wooden toys, books or dolls made of cloth support creativity [for building, playing pretend, ‘reading’ the stories, etc.].”

“For preschool-aged children, large building blocks and balance boards are great for improving gross motor skills, increasing balance and spatial awareness. At our Pre-K program, children always find new ways to use the toys we provide. Just the other day, we thought some new silks would be great for costumes, but the children used them instead to ‘decorate for a party’ in a castle they built. It’s wonderful to see their creativity in motion.”

Preschool is also where first relationships (aside from family members) form.

“Children who play together daily and through a period of years develop a play family,” said Stewart “Each year, as the children grow, the bonds they share grow deeper. This allows trust to form – and leads to advanced language and communication skills, cognitive function, bond-building and promotes self-esteem.”

Stewart also believes in the power of daily nature-based learning, in all seasons. “Outdoor play is the cornerstone of childhood. Nature provides a fantastic landscape to build upon so many skills. This may sound like an obvious one, but even finding some uneven ground to walk on can help a toddler learn their balance as well as perseverance.”

So what?

For parents looking for a daycare or preschool program for their early learner, Stewart says, “one size or model does not and will fit all,” and it’s about finding the “right [balanced] program for your family.”

For parents wishing to support free play at home, Stewart explained that “it can take a little practice.” She recalled her twin sons’ younger years:

“As a parent myself, I wanted nothing more than to play with my children and be a part of their every moment, but I’ve learned through my experiences with them, my program’s children and through my schooling, that free-play is more than just ‘playing’ with your child. Because I was such a big part of my twin sons’ lives, even during play, they sort of became dependent on me to play. I learned that like most things, free play is about balance and it’s more about fostering their play, rather than leading their play.”

“Play is actually not something we as parents and educators are supposed to guide all the time,” she continued. “I tell my teachers to let nature or the classroom support the children’s play and let the children lead. You can set up the environment, the toys…you can sing a little, be close by and attentive. I’m not saying don’t play with your children, that’s silly not to, but they might not need as much hand-holding as you think. What they do need is your attention at certain moments more than anything.”

“Playtime is such a gift for children and in today’s world, I am honored to protect childhood each day. As Fred Rogers [Mr. Rogers] said, ‘Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from [learning], but for children, play is learning. Play is really the work of childhood.’”

Aubree Kammler is a public information specialist for Capital Region BOCES. She is the mother to a one-year old son – together they’re exploring the world one wobbly step at a time.

Tags: , , , ,