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Play is important!

Goofing off” or playing around isn’t a waste of time—it actually teaches children critical skills that will be important for the rest of their lives.

Kids playing — it’s such a common sight that parents often take it for granted. It’s easy to think playing is “just for fun”, but there is so much more to it than that. Play is a very real way for all children to explore and learn about the world around them. Each child brings his or her own “style” to the way they play. Some youngsters are very physical and active in their games, while others are more talkative, offering a running commentary on the action. Still others are happiest playing on their own.

Below are three difference scenarios of kids playing:

Evan is using his blocks to make a bridge on the floor. He drives a plastic car over it once or twice, then knocks it down and begins to build a spaceship instead.

Kanchana drags her green plastic caterpillar behind her on its string.

“Come on Mikey,” she says. “We’re going to the vet.”

Jaime and Dylan waited while Mom and Dad raked the leaves into a big pile in the front yard. Now they’re taking turns throwing themselves into
the soft mound, laughing and tossing leaves at each other.

Zayd and his Dad are playing checkers.

Evan and the others aren’t just fooling around or wasting time. In fact, Evan and Kanchana are developing their imagination as well as fine motor skills, while Jaime and Dylan are experiencing the fun of being outdoors and playing together. Zayd, too, is learning, developing more complex planning and thinking abilities.

Social skills through play

Eight-year-old Marika says: “Let’s have a birthday party with my stuffed animals.” Her friend Alana holds up her doll. “Sally wants to play school,” she protests. “Maybe we could have the party and then play school?” suggests Marika. These kinds of interactions during play help children learn important social skills like listening, taking turns and how to get along with others.

What makes a good toy?

The best toys aren’t the most expensive or those heavily advertised in the media.

Your child will probably have more fun with toys that can be played with in a variety of ways — building blocks, art supplies, musical toys, kitchen utensils and tools can all be wonderful toys. Remember that old joke that “kids would rather play with the box than the toy that came in it?” It’s often true — so save boxes, plastic containers and other items to be props for your child’s imagination and learning.

Quality time

Play is a natural way for adults and children to have fun together. Playing with your child is an ideal way to spend one-on-one time together. Through play, you can learn a lot about your child: what’s on their mind and what they enjoy. And, especially as your child grows older, play is a wonderful way to keep your relationship strong.

Your role

There is no “right” way to play together. How you spend your play time will vary depending on the age of your children and whether you live in a city or rural setting. The activities you share will also be affected by your cultural upbringing, personalities and preferences. Parents play several roles in children’s play. We entertain, teach, supervise and sometimes participate as active playmates, playing along in activities our children have chosen.

Problematic play

Children’s play can sometimes express aggression, anger, defiance or other strong emotions. At other times the way a child plays could indicate a problem. Check with your child’s doctor if your child:

Can almost never “play nicely.” It’s normal for toddlers and even preschoolers to have frequent conflicts, or for children of any age to have occasional trouble getting along with playmates. But if your child’s play is always angry, aggressive or uncooperative, seek advice from a medical or mental health professional.

Plays in a rigidly repetitive or ritualistic way. Children often enjoy playing the same games and themes over and over again. But if your child’s play is rigidly repetitive — for example, he always just lines up his animals in the same order instead of making up stories or playing with them in a variety of ways, talk to your doctor.

Engaged learning

Educators consider play a valuable tool for learning. You may have heard of the importance of “early learning”. But that doesn’t refer to sitting preschoolers down for math and reading lessons. In fact, today’s early learning programs often incorporate fun, play-based activities into the structure of classroom life. When the environment is enjoyable children become more engaged in learning.

Derek volunteered in his daughter’s grade one class on the day they were learning about ancient Egypt. He was surprised by what he saw. “Some kids were dressed up in costumes, one group was working on a mural about the Pyramids and another was making mummies out of plaster.”

The teacher explained to Derek that even though it looked like they were “just playing”, each activity was carefully planned to help children learn specific concepts or skills.

Have fun!

Kids love vigorous, active physical play like climbing, running and jumping. They also enjoy quiet or creative play. All of these types of play can relieve children’s stress and help them relax.

Adults sometimes think that play is trivial, especially for older kids, and want children to spend more time on structured learning such as reading, computer learning programs and organized lessons or sports. These activities all have their place in a child’s life, but they aren’t better or more valuable than just playing around.

Excerpted and adapted from the book Let’s Play! A Child’s Road to Learning, written by Donna Papacosta and Teresa Pitman.

Tips for staying safe while having fun

• Follow your child’s lead. Pay attention to your child and base your actions on their interests and responses. Help them do what they want to do rather than what you think they should do.

• Children have short attention spans. Be prepared to keep activities short, take breaks and switch activities as your child’s interest or energy level changes. This is especially important with preschoolers.

Focus on fun, not competition. Even though young children may like the idea of competing to win, they can’t handle losing very well. Try to play games where everyone wins.

• Keep it simple. Young children often get pleasure from very simple and spontaneous activities. Just having the opportunity to spend time with you means a lot to them.

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