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Benefits of play

The Benefits of Imaginative Play

by Ellen Booth Church
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"Imagination is more important than knowledge generally. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand." - Albert Einstein

How much do you play every day? Yes, you. Often in our adult years we get too busy for play. But play is essential to the welfare of every living being. Play builds understanding, encourages communication, and makes us happier. Play teaches us how to be good citizens: to share, take turns, and listen to each other. Play-based interactions with toys and with other people help us—children and adults alike—to build important thinking, problem-solving, and language skills. When was the last time you played? Not just with your child, but with a project or with a good friend? Here is your homework: in the next few weeks, make a playdate with a friend or plan to do a project by yourself. No kids allowed. Why is this important? Because as parents, we have to be playful ourselves to really understand the value of play for our children.

How Play Helps Children Learn

For years, early childhood educators have been saying that play is the important "work" of the young child. Recent brain research has demonstrated that this is true. Your child not only learns skills through play, but she also builds her brain; stimulating play-based experiences in the early years contribute to the actual structure and capacity of your child's brain. Happily, the more your child plays, the more she makes connections in the brain between what she knows and what she is discovering. And perhaps best of all, playing with you and other trusted adults creates the positive and secure relationships that build the brain cells your child will use later in school and in life. Your playful interactions with your child shape her ability to learn—so play!

What Children Learn When They Play

If you stand back and observe your child playing, you'll notice a great deal of thinking and learning going on. Through play, your child can experiment with ideas, build concepts and constructs, express feelings, and solve problems. Whether it is imaginative or constructive play, your child is building important skills that will last her a lifetime.

When your child plays with blocks, she is working with balance, symmetry, and geometry as she explores the different shapes and how they work together. Watch closely and you will see her use problem-solving and decision-making skills as she uses trial and error to create a way to keep her structure from falling down. These same skills will be needed later for math and science experimentation in school.

Great Block Toys to explore: When your child plays with puzzles and table toys, she is working with the small muscle and coordination skills that are critical to her learning how to read and write. As you watch her experiment with fitting puzzle pieces together or building with small construction toys, you can see that she is using spatial and analytical thinking as she tries many different ways to make the pieces work.

Great Puzzles to explore: When your child plays with art materials, she is expressing her creative ideas, thoughts, and feelings through exploring the nature of color, shape, paint, paper, and clay. As you watch her try to tape objects to paper or build something out of empty boxes, you can trust that she is building the same brainstorming and critical thinking skills that scientists use when confronted with a problem to solve.

Great Art Supplies to explore: When your child plays pretend, she is using her imagination to pretend to be somebody—or something—thus building self-awareness. Imaginary play builds the important linguistic and social-interaction skills needed to participate in group activities in school. As you watch her pretend that the couch is a dragon and you are the princess she needs to save, you are seeing her use creative thinking as she develops the ability to look at things in symbolic and flexible ways. Studies have shown that creative thinking and brainstorming are the key elements to meeting the ever-changing challenges of school and life.

Great Pretend Play toys to explore: Play Builds Emotional Intelligence

Finally, it is important to end by mentioning the impact play has on emotions. Positive emotional experiences actually assist the brain in storing and utilizing new information. Through imaginative play and experimentation in a non-judgmental environment, children learn about their feelings and their world. Did you ever see your child purposefully spin around and around until she got dizzy and fell down? What a feeling—losing your balance and getting it back again! May we always feel the freedom and security to give life a "spin." 
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Meet Our Expert
Ellen Booth Church
Early Childhood Consultant
Well-known early childhood educator, Ellen Booth Church spent several years as both a pre-k and kindergarten teacher before becoming an early childhood assistant professor at the State University of New York at New Paltz. She is currently an educational consultant, keynote speaker, curriculum/product developer, and writer, dedicated to enriching the lives of young children and their families. In addition, Ellen is a columnist for Scholastic's Parent and Child magazine as well as the author of many books for teachers and parents. In the world of Children's Television, Ellen has consulted for PBS, Nelvana, and Cartoon Network on a wide variety of projects.

You can find out more on Ellen Booth Church's website.
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