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The Importance of Play in Early Childhood Development

Fred Roger says, “Play is the work of childhood”. Despite these quotes we keep hearing every now and then, and the benefits derived from play in early childhood, the time for play has significantly been reduced today. Play in early development includes physical, mental, emotional, social and cognitive well-being of a child.

Most of the parents don’t realize that play is an ideal opportunity to connect and engage with their children. This article highlights the importance of play in early childhood development, especially in speech and language development. It also emphasizes on how to create meaningful play for a child, and the stages of play development that must be taken into consideration while creating meaningful play for children.

Why Play?

According to experts, the early childhood phase is the most important and crucial phase in a child’s life in order for them to develop cognitive abilities. Play plays a key role in various aspects of a child's development including physical, emotional, intellectual, cognitive, social, and language development. Following are some of the key characteristics of a play:

· Learning new things: Play enables and encourages children to explore, experiment, and change their environment to learn new skills.

· Engagement: Most importantly, to master play, a child must take an interest in another child, caregiver, or person around them.

· Cognitive Abilities & Soft Skills: Play teaches a lot of things: eye contact, turn-taking, imitation of movement and sounds, non-verbal cues, receptive language, and much more. For example, Does the child look at his/her mom when the blocks fall, to check her response? Does the child follow dad’s instruction to look at the pictures in the books?

The Impact of Play on Speech & Language Development

Early childhood is the best time to nurture a child’s Speech and Language skills. At this point of age, children watch and learn to imitate the actions of others around them. When babies are born, they learn communication by watching their mothers’ facial expressions and body language.

Children explore and learn through play. When you stack the blocks, they learn novel words and concepts like “block, on top, at the bottom, in the middle etc. Children start experimenting with what they see and hear. Clapping, waving, and pointing are also precursors to language.

Through play, a child learns to communicate his/her wants and needs and shares this information with others around them.

The Purposeful Play – How to Create it?

Play makes the best impact when it is created meaningfully and purposefully. Following are the ways you should adopt to create a purposeful play for your child:

· Make time for an unstructured, child-directed open play.

· Allow a "yes" space in play for a child to give him/her freedom to explore the environment.

· Remove your expectations and follow their lead.

· Tune in to your child’s interests.

· Ask open-ended questions instead of yes/no questions. For example, instead of asking “Which block is yellow?” you could say “Wow, your tower is tall! I wonder what will happen when you put the last block on top?”

The Stages of Play Development

The following are the stages of play development, based on the age of a child.

1. Functional Play– Begins before 2 years; explores how common objects work, and/or can be used. For example – babies can put some toys in their mouth, shake a rattle, or bang objects together.

2. Constructional Play– Begins around 2 years; involves using materials to make other objects. For example - building a tower, playing with play-dough, and/or making arts and crafts.

3. Symbolic or Pretend Play– Begins between 3 to 5 years; this is when a child can pretend to do common, daily activities like play. For example – pretend to feed a doll, brush a doll's hair, use a phone, or drive a car.

4. Game Play– Begins during school-age; this type of play has a clear set of rules to follow and depends on turn-taking. For example – board games, card games, or sports.

5. Social Play– Begins around 4 months and continues till adulthood; children learn to watch others, play independently and begin to share things and information with others.

Play is highly important for healthy brain development. It is through a meaningful and purposeful play only that children at a very early age get engaged with the world around them and develop the skills needed to face future challenges in their lives.

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