I will freely admit that my children spend the majority of their time in play. I know that many would look into our home and feel that I am drastically neglecting my children’s education. Nothing could be further from the truth. I believe that play based learning is the most important form of education for a child. Play, and even more specifically mixed age play, gives children the opportunity to develop social skills, language and literacy development, cognitive reasoning, emotional intelligence, and motor skills.
Social intelligence does not come naturally. It is a trait that is developed and trained through experience. Parents can and should teach, but the best tool for learning important social skills is by playing with other children. There is a great motivator at work, the continuation of the play. When allowed to play freely, with minimal adult interference, a child must learn empathy for their playmates if they want the play to continue. If they do not learn to share, take turns, and negotiate conflicting desires then they will lose their playmate.
Language and Literacy Development:
In order to successfully play with others a child must learn oral communication skills. They learn new words, and they have to learn how to string those words together to express a complete thought. Often as they play they are faced with situations where they may not know the words to express what they need/want. Learning new words and phrases in this situation solidifies the pathways of true understanding better than any spelling or vocabulary lesson ever could. With mixed ages playing together older children are able to assist the younger ones in developing new words while simultaneously reinforcing their own knowledge and understanding. As children play they develop complex story lines and situation. This creates a greater ability to understand the symbolism, story lines, and differences between the fact and fiction in the literature that they read.
Through play children are able to learn about and understand the world around them. As children play imaginative games they take on different roles, and act them out. This requires complex thoughts about how another person would act in the currently imagined situation. When playing with a group children have to work together to define the story line, decide who will play what role, and deal with conflict as it arises throughout the game. Through this exercise they practice problem solving, planning, self monitoring and evaluating their own and others’ actions. Every time an adult steps in to organize the play they are robbing the children of the opportunity to develop these skills.
Emotional intelligence begin with self-awareness and self-management. These skills are best taught by parents. The next steps, social-awareness and relationship management, are best learned through play with other children. When a child is sitting at a desk or table doing worksheets they are robbed of the ability to interact with their peers and through this interaction become aware of those around them. When children are able to freely play together they learn to sense others needs and wants and from there progress to managing their relationships with others.
The physical health of our society is going drastically downhill. Play is crucial to developing both fine and gross motor skills necessary to maintaining physical strength. It is during free play that a child learns to coordinate their body movements to accomplish a specific goal. While organized sports and activities can be a good supplement for body development, free play is the best form of exercise for children. During free play they learn to think through a physical task and then accomplish that task. They use their bodies in new ways and strengthen necessary core muscles. With organized exercise and sports children are directed in what body movements to make. This diminishes their ability to learn about acceptable physical risk and truly test their own limits. During free play, they are also able to learn spatial awareness, the effects of force, and confidence in their own physical abilities.
My children are doing the most productive thing that they can do by spending their day playing. I have to admit I struggle with wanting to butt in and tell them they are not being fair, do a complicated physical activity for them, or assist them in negotiating a relationship problem. As I learn to trust them and their processes I am amazed by what they can accomplish. They truly are doing the most important educational work they can be doing.
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