From the NYU CHILD STUDY CENTER: ASK THE EXPERT
“Play is a child’s job”
My grandson Tani started kindergarten this year and I don’t remember the process being this stressful when my own children started school and I certainly know that we believed that playing was the major task of children this age. Nowadays, getting ready for kindergarten seems to start shortly after birth. Children barely (or not quite) out of diapers are being taught to sing the alphabet, recognize letters and watch Baby Einstein. Prepping for the preschool interview takes precedence over allowing time for imagination and creativity and fun. The fact is, however, that play actually enriches children’s development and prepares them for learning. The years from 2 to 6 are often called the “play years” since play thrives during these years.
A child at play is working hard; in addition to having fun, she’s busy learning lots of things. Make-believe and imaginative play really relate to her everyday life; she’s finding out how her world works and where she fits in. Play reflects a child’s world in miniature; through play children act out relationships—they assume the roles of parents, bus drivers, storekeepers, doctors and even television characters. They set up scenes from different points of view and explore different ways of mastering situations. Play can help children deal with changes in their lives such as the birth of a new baby, moving, parental separation and other events.
Play is a safe way of expressing emotions that may be too complex to verbalize. In play a child creates a magical world in which he can safely be anyone and do anything, such as playing an aggressive game involving punching, hitting or tearing down a structure. He may create scenes reflecting anger, fear, disappointment or jealousy. Play can also help a child cope with fears; in play he can master scary situations by being brave and fearless—a doctor sewing up a cut, a runner winning a race, a lifeguard saving a struggling swimmer.
Learning through play is happening all the time. In addition to conventional toys, children are constantly experimenting with whatever is available; they construct things, tear them down, compare objects and use them in different ways. As they experiment they learn about math, words, symbols and science (what floats, what sinks; heavy/light; large/small; in/out; backwards/forwards).
It is through play that children gradually learn which activities they enjoy and excel in—from music to science to sports to art. Through group play they learn to get along with others and to understand the viewpoint of another person.
Parents can encourage their children’s play by making space and props, and most of all, uninterrupted time, available. For preschool children making time for play is more critical than time for structured classes in reading, math, and ballet. Play reflects the predicaments of childhood and can give parents insight into what their child is thinking, worrying about, and wishing for. Finally, play is just plain fun, so get down on the floor and join in.
This monthly column provides educators, parents and families with important information about child and adolescent mental health issues. Please submit questions for ASK THE EXPERT to Glenn S. Hirsch, M.D., Medical Director at the NYU Child Study Center at firstname.lastname@example.org. To subscribe to the ASK THE EXPERT Newsletter or for more information about the NYU Child Study Center, visit www.AboutOurKids.org or call 212-263-6622.#