Sit and listen in to conversations at any dance lesson or little league practice and one will hear the frantic voices of parents worried that their child isn’t learning fast enough to either be ready for school or keep up with school.  National and state reports convince us that every minute counts and there is no time to play! Who has time to play? We have scheduled our children every second of every day in hopes that they will be prepared.  Yet, let’s stop and consider, WHAT are we preparing them for?

As an educator for over 30 years, I have seen the pendulum swing from one extreme to the other.  I have seen play incorporated throughout the learning day and I have seen it taken out completely.  It seems no two people can agree at any one time on the importance of play.  We might not be able to control whether or not play is part of the school day but we can most certainly control whether or not it is part of the day we control – our child’s time at home.

A primary reason play is so quickly discarded is that is difficult to realize what a child may learn from it.  Let me provide several examples.

Engaging in Inner and External Dialogue

Psychologist Lev Vygotsky developed a theory of cognitive development in which he believed children used play to understand the world.  When children play and have imaginary friends, they engage in both an inner and external dialogue.  They talk through situations, they problem solve, they role-play.  You have seen this because more than likely your child has mimicked you!  You may have observed your child playing with a doll and saying, “Ohhh, don’t put that in your mouth,” or  “That’s okay. Don’t cry. I will fix it.”

Developing Critical Listening

Critical listening is another thing that is learned through play.  When we tell children to lie down, close their eyes and listen to the sounds around them we are teaching them to listen critically.  True story… as a teacher, I often had my students play a listening game called “Jacob Where Are You”?  It is probably one of the silliest games I taught.  Children lie on their backs with closed eyes while one child “Jacob” goes to any place in the room and makes a sound.   The other children, keeping eyes closed, point to the area from where they heard the sound. One year, a parent asked me where she could buy the game because her son loved playing it!  It seemed like such silly play  but it was so very good for developing critical listening.  Children need highly developed critical listening skills so they will later be able to hear the individual sounds in words which is necessary for spelling.

Growing Fine Motor Skills

Playdough or clay is another important part of play that we need to continue at home.  I am not speaking of  the fancy storebought toys that children squeeze the dough through, but rather the kneading, pounding, twisting, and rolling of  plain playdough.  It is so powerful!  For example, the rolling of ‘snakes’ develops the fine motor muscles in the fingers needed to hold a pencil – needed to write a name or letters and words.

Expanding Vocabulary and the Sense of Story

Imaginary play involving dressing up or playing with puppets allows children to create stories.   The stories children make up begin to develop a beginning, middle and end.  The stories begin to develop a problem and a solution paving the road for literary elements learned in school.  These stories also lay the foundation for writing.  When we can tell stories, we can write stories.

Imaginary play also increases a child’s vocabulary.   My two-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter loves the Disney character, Sofia the First.  She carries the stories from the show into her free play and expands them with her imagination, often using new vocabulary she has heard.  For example, she can tell me all about her “amulet” and yes, she knows what one is.

Learning about the Way Words Work

My grown son did well in school.  He could spell and got whatever the highest grade was on each spelling test.  He could not however, spell when he wrote papers!  It wasn’t until he started playing word games at home that he internalized word patterns.  Yes, we are THAT family!  His favorite game to this day is called “The Island of Nod”.  There are certain things that can be on the island and things that can’t.   For example, “There can be green things but not red; streets but not roads, teeth but not mouths.”  Have you figured it out?  The rule/generalization changes once it is guessed.  When it is done orally, kids have to visualize how a word is spelled, think about patterns, similarities etc.  My son’s spelling in his writing improved dramatically because through play, he was analyzing word patterns and internalizing them.

The problem with play in school is that it is hard to assess.  The problem isn’t the play but maybe the test.  How do we test or check to see what a child has learned through play?  We observe, that’s what we do.  We listen and we talk to the child.  Take the dress up or imaginary story.  Can’t we ask, “Who was in your story?  What was the problem? So then how did ___ solve the problem?” When we ask a child what they were playing, we are asking them to summarize.  Through the play environment, children are now using language to describe what they are playing: “Well she is a character in my story.  I think the setting for my story will be a castle.”   Children are using the language that we eventually assess them on.   It becomes part of their every day language, not something they learn for a test.

I can listen to a 4 year old playing and determine if they have an advanced vocabulary without having them circle little pictures that represent some words.  When my grandson builds with his building blocks and says, “Look G, this one is taller than that one” or “I am going to make this one longer” I can conclude that he grasps the concept of comparing lengths.  Children are learning what will be tested in authentic natural environments and while having fun!   I trust that we are smarter than the average 4-6 year old and by listening, we can discern what they know.  The key is listening.

So, take a deep breath, hit the pause button and let your child play.  They will be smarter for it.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Do the families of your community understand the value of play?
  2. How can ReadyRosie help you communicate and model often overlooked opportunities for play in families’ busy lives?
  3. How can educators practice better assessment through listening and share that information with parents and caregivers?

Contributed by Teddi Fulenwider, early literacy consultant, creator of ReadwithTedDee app, and grandmother of three littles.  @readwithteddee