“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” There’s a reason this little proverb is so widely known. Along with structured learning exercises and games, children need unstructured free-play in order for their young brains to develop.
These days, however, adults and teachers alike are placing more and more importance on the academic side of development. Kids as young as three or four are often expected to follow rigid schedules packed with every activity from organized sports to flash cards and math dots.
Many toy manufacturers are also getting in on the educational craze and there are now countless toys and games to teach kids specific academic skills.
But while these activities and tools can be useful in child development, the importance of simple, uncomplicated play that is not adult-led should not be underestimated.
Have you ever wondered why children often insist on playing with some seemingly boring object such as a sponge or plastic cup, when they have a whole room full of fascinatingly intricate toys and gadgets?
This is because the simpler the toy, the more a child gets to use their imagination, which means that something as mundane as a stick from the garden or a pot from the kitchen can be transformed into a gleaming sword and helmet or a glittering chest of treasures.
In a recent study carried out at the University of California at Berkeley, researchers found that play, and especially pretend play, can help a child to learn more quickly. Additionally, they also found that children who were better at pretending were also better at reasoning about different possibilities and situations.
Children are often more like scientists than most adults, in that they imagine how the world could work, and then imagine the pattern of data that they would see if their theories were in fact true.
They then compare the imagined data with the actual data that they see, in much the same way a scientist testing a theory would.
Of course this is all a lot simpler than it sounds, and a child is not consciously thinking about testing theories or data patterns, but allowing children to experience the world on their own and let their imagination run wild can help them to develop what philosophers call “counterfactual thinking.”
An adult just sees a stick as a stick, but a child imagines countless possibilities and things that could be done with that stick. Allowing children to act out these scenarios can increase their creative performance later on in life.
Other research by psychologist Sandra Russ shows that pretend play allows for expression of emotions and feelings, both positive and negative. This helps children to integrate their emotions with their thoughts, and think about what they are feeling, which can reduce aggressiveness and encourage empathy.
Another thing that pretend play is good for is developing communication and problem solving skills. When a child plays with toys or objects they come up with their own story line, perhaps pretending that a cuddly toy is a friend and acting out the different roles and introductions.
This can help them to learn better social skills and understand a situation from a few different perspectives, even without someone to explain it to them.
So, rather than showing concern about pretend play, it would be better for parents and teachers to encourage this type of behavior as a way to foster creativity.
Research has shown that children who are read or told bedtime stories or regularly have things about nature or social issues explained to them are more likely to develop pretend-play habits.
Pre-schoolers and younger children who attend schools where pretend games are encouraged or at least allowed by the school’s curriculum or during recess also tend to be more imaginative and display more advanced learning skills.
The best way to encourage this pretend play is to simplify your child’s schedule so that they have the time they need to explore and find entertainment in the simplest things. A child with a schedule so full that there is no time to play is often unable to entertain himself once he is finally left to his own devices.
Of course children do need structure in their lives, but be sure to leave some time free between school, sports and chores so that your child can get creative.
Another thing that is important is to provide your child with the material he needs to play imaginatively. Most children get their ideas for pretend play from books or movies, and even outings to the zoo or a nature walk through the forest.
Take the time to explain things they don’t understand and provide them with the right props and material. For example, after an outing to the zoo, you could read books about wild animals or bring out plastic or stuffed animals so that your child can play along the same theme you have been learning about.
As a parent, try not to place too much emphasis on the academic side of things, especially when your child is still very young. Let kids be kids and encourage their natural desire to play and imagine the world as it could be.
Tanya Rivka Dy-Peque is part of the team behind Open Colleges, Australia’s provider of child care courses. Tanya is an educational therapist who has been working closely with kids with special needs for about 5 years now.