The joy a person feels when he/she is having fun during the early years of one’s life is a distant memory that not many can recall. However, what can often be acknowledged by many is that this precious process is one of the happiest and most genuine parts of our lives. More often than not, the process of having fun as a child is when we are engaging in play.
While most of us feel that play is something that comes as a form of leisure activity for children to have fun and let off some steam, we risk leading ourselves and children to see them as separate activities.
This will be a waste as play can also be an important aspect of a child’s learning and development.
There are many ways learning can happen effectively (we don’t just mean studying and knowledge on Mathematics and Science):
Learning can occur in many forms, children develop simply by using their five senses to interact with the external world around them such as people and objects. Not only that, the process of learning also occurs internally as they start to reason, experiment, and communicate with their thoughts to make sense of what they see, hear, or even feel. Play is one of the most stimulating experiences in a child’s development. Through different types of play such as outdoor play, free play, pretend play and even adult-guided play, it provides them with a rich environment, opportunities, and platform to experience those learning processes.
If we revisit the diagram below and reframe how we see learn and play. Learning and playing actually overlap and that is when the magic happens!
Why do we focus on this?
As quoted from one of the greatest minds of the century Albert Einstein said that, “Play is the highest form of research.”
When you recall the few episodes you were playing together with your child(ren), or have observed them playing, did you notice any actions that have taken place? Did he/she persevere when he was trying to stack up his/her building blocks? Did he/she try different ways to stack them up when they fail? Did he/she try to use different words or vocabulary to explain what he/she was trying to do?
Through the process of playing with someone or something, a child is taking more than one action that may result in learning. As a child’s brain is engaged in many ways during this process, with a little more mindfulness and internal awareness the time your child spends with his or her LEGO block might be more meaningful than you realise. Many researchers have discussed how play can develop many different skills - cognitive, emotional, social, and physical. To better classify those areas of development, we can categorize them as meaningful growth of a child in the Head, Heart, and Hand.
Whether it is communicating and negotiating the rules while playing hide-and-seek (Hand, maybe Heart), overcoming the obstacles at the playground (Hand), trying to build a house using scrap materials (Head, Hand, maybe even Heart), or conducting a simple vinegar & baking soda experiment (Head and Hand), children are applying different competencies and strengthening different abilities on their own.
The presence of an immediate caregiver or parent whom the child interacts with most of the time to provide feedback and insights will help to reinforce development in at least one of the areas. The caregiver role hence becomes a significant part of making the play process a lot more meaningful and enriching.
For Parents: How can we facilitate learning while children are having fun?
A general framework for the parent’s role during play can be broken down into three categories known as the (1) Environment, (2) Action, and (3) Words used.
Turn off electronic devices (TV, tablets, and phone)
Creating a rich and meaningful environment for play - A parent should provide a rich environment that allows the child to be exposed to different situations and various objects that fuel their imagination and creativity such as bringing them to the playground, wildlife nature reserve, or even having a playroom filled with meaningful objects to play with. Meaningful objects such as LEGO blocks, (maybe you all want to mention your products, hahaha) should engage a few or all of their five senses to stimulate their learning and even act as a topic of conversation with you or other children. Exposure to electronic devices should also be done at an appropriate age as research has found that using electronic devices below the age of 7 could lead to many negative effects such as gaming addiction, violent tendencies, and even anti-social behaviours. It is important that the play process is a meaningful one and electronic devices may not be able to aid a child’s development at a young age which brings us to our next point.
Creating a safe space - Parents would also need to ensure that it is a safe environment where they can meet challenges but also feel safe that there would be no damaging consequences to both their physical and mental well-being. For example, you should remove or cushion any sharp edges or corners that could potentially lead to a serious injury. Additionally, the objects and its contents should not be too dangerous, violent, or scary like fireworks, lighter and electronic devices which can be a fearful experience for a child. A child needs to feel safe during play as it will provide them with the confidence to try new experiences, experiment, and take certain risks which are important areas of development.
Follow their lead - Allow the child to play and direct their own play. This may sound easy but it is the instinctive nature of a parent to want to assist the child in every manner possible and that includes how they play as well. Allow them to struggle to put two blocks together. Allow them to observe the flying beetle. Allow them to talk out loud and observe from the side. Parents can also take part in their play by participating in the current activity, this allows the child to interact with you, and feel that you are taking an interest in them. The parent would also benefit as it would help them to see the world through their children’s eyes and understand their thought process.
Focus and observe the process (instead of the goal) - Standing on the sidelines to observe could be one of the hardest things for a parent to do, however, it is a necessary process that one can do for their child when it comes to playing. Observation is a very powerful tool for a parent as it provides information for them to ask meaningful questions subsequently or even plan their follow up action after play to add meaning to the learn and play process.
Imitate, elaborate, ask exploratory questions - As mentioned in the previous point, adding new vocabulary or description to your child’s play can widen their general knowledge and improve their use of language. Ask questions to extend the child’s play and even allow them to gain new insights into the world around them. This makes it easier for them to apply the theories and skills that they have mastered during play to real-world situations. For example, the reasoning skills that they have to understand their actions during play would help them to empathise and engage in meaningful conversations with other individuals around them.
Praise efforts instead of abilities - Praising their abilities and talents such as telling them that “you are really good at jumping” can at times promote a limit and restrict their mindset where the child believes that being good at jumping is something that he/she already has. Not only that, if they fail to do it well in another situation, they would feel disappointed and start doubting their abilities which lowers their self-esteem. As compared to praising their efforts by saying “You have worked really hard from moving here to there” would be able to nourish their self-esteem and encourage them to work harder towards improving their abilities.
All in all, having fun during play is one of the best ways a child can learn. Play provides a chance for children to emulate and simulate different scenarios that are only limited by one’s imagination. Additionally, It provides growth for the head, heart and hand. Learning through having fun can be one of the greatest motivators for a child and the outcomes of it can definitely be seen even as they progress into adults.