Play may look fun, but it’s actually incredibly significant for a child’s development and learning.
Building the brain
Play is one of the fundamental aspects of brain development, together with nutrition, protection, and other forms of stimulation.
By providing good nutrition, protection, and opportunities to play, engage, and learn, we can guide every child on a path to a healthy future.
In order to be strong for life, a child’s brain needs to make connections between neurons. Think of the brain as you would of a house. Neurons are like the walls, ceilings, and pipes that map the house together and enable activities to happen in the house. Connections between neurons are created through early play, personal relationships, and experiences, be it the big things – such as parties and holidays – or the little things – such as a game of peekaboo, or a cuddle at the end of the day.
The five types of play
Play takes on many guises, but generally speaking it can be divided into five categories; physical, object, rules, symbolic, and pretend play.
Physical play is exactly as it sounds. From climbing to chasing, pushing to pulling, physical play strengthens gross and fine motor skills – and keeps children active! It also offers strong emotional and social benefits. For example, so-called “rough and tumble” or tickling games can be lots of fun for both parent and child, deepening their bond.
Playing with objects doesn’t just mean playing with toys – it can mean whatever interesting thing a child can engage with and manipulate! This type of play is an exploration for the senses, which encourages fine-motor development too. It also gets the mind thinking, by stimulating creativity and problem-solving skills.
Games with rules, be it “tag”, board games or team sports, provide children with an entertaining way to learn social skills like turn-taking, sharing, and empathy. Games with rules can further develop language and communication skills, and are a wonderful way for families to spend quality time together.
The definition of symbolic play sometimes blends with pretend play, but in this instance it means how children play with language and other forms of communication. It could be a child calling a sheep a “baa”, drawing a picture of Mummy, or making marks as if they were words. This form of play allows children to make sense of things around them and develop skills to express themselves, such as writing, drawing or playing an instrument.
Children use pretend play to understand the world around them, discover more about their own identity, and to understand experiences and regulate emotions. Pretend play also really lets the imagination out for a walk, whether it’s mimicking a real-life person, or spending the afternoon with an imaginary unicorn.
The dangers of toxic stress
Children living in conflict are often exposed to extreme trauma, putting them at risk of living in a state of toxic stress, a condition that inhibits brain cell connections. The effects of toxic stress can be very serious – even irreversible – and are linked to physical, mental, and behavioral problems in adulthood.
It’s estimated that more than 86.7 million children under the age of 7 have spent their entire lives in conflict zones, putting their brain development at risk.
“Conflict robs children of their safety, family and friends, play and routine,” comments Pia Britto, UNICEF’s Chief of Early Childhood Development. “Yet these are all elements of childhood that give children the best possible chance of developing fully and learning effectively, enabling them to contribute to their economies and societies, and building strong and safe communities when they reach adulthood”.
Making time for play
The importance of play is greater than ever for vulnerable and at-risk children. Play can become a powerful strategy to help them establish routines and regain a sense of normality. It’s an excellent coping mechanism in the face of chaos.
Play can also allow for a more peaceful future. By learning to take turns and negotiate, children consider others’ feelings and needs, and develop diplomatic ways to resolve conflict. Play allows children a space to release negative emotions in a safe way, and learn what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior. With all that considered, it’s vital to make time for play.
Become a Partner In Play
In 2016, we are collaborating to bring LEGO® DUPLO® bricks to vulnerable children in Jordan, enhancing their opportunities for play.
It’s easy to show your support and help celebrate the importance of play. Just share a picture or video of your family’s happy play moment using the hashtag #PartnersInPlay on Twitter, Instagram, or the LEGO DUPLO Facebook page. Together we are Partners In Play.
Arguably, play has never been so important.