The old adage warning against a life of "all work and no play" actually may be true, at least when it comes to early-childhood learning. Research shows that unstructured play promotes learning in every form and provides opportunities for cognitive and social growth, especially in young children. Play is a key component of the early-childhood programs at GEMS World Academy-Chicago and our sister school, Little GEMS International Preschool. Teachers at both schools view play as an important way to keep young brains active and inquisitive.

The notion that play can help learning is not a new one. As early as the 1930s, pioneering sociologist Mildred Parten suggested a link between play and cognitive development with her identification of five types of play:

  1. Onlooker behavior: A passive type of play in which children watch while other children engage in play.
  2. Solitary independent play: Playing alone.
  3. Parallel play: Playing alone but among other children; in this type of play, children may share toys but stay focused on their independent play.
  4. Associative play: Children share materials and converse, but may not join in group play objectives.
  5. Cooperative play: Organization into roles with specific goals in mind, such as character play or community roles.

Later, psychologist Jean Piaget took the study of play further by defining play as "assimilation, or the child's efforts to make environmental stimuli match his or her own concepts." Piaget held that play was a form of practicing and reinforcing concepts already learned, but did not teach new concepts.

In contrast, psychologist Lev Vygotsky explored the "new learning" concept of play. He found that not only does play reinforce previously learned information, but it also produces new skills and development.

Cognitive and Social Benefits of Play

Social play starts as early as the second year of a child's life, promoting the development of problem-solving skills, vocabulary and concentration. Between the ages of 2 and 3, toddlers begin with parallel play, but they quickly build the skills and confidence necessary to explore social interactions through associative and cooperative play. Between the ages of 3 and 5, children continue to benefit and grow through play.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) recommends including play in early childhood learning curricula based on the continuing research into its many benefits. In addition to increased language and communication skills and improved physical development and fine motor skills, time for imaginative play allows for social and emotional growth. Children learn:

  • Teamwork and organizational
  • Safety rules and importance of environment
  • About community and family
    roles and relationships
  • About differing points of view
    and how to respect them
  • How to respond to others and develop self-respect

Play also encourages cognitive development that relates to further learning success. Language and
literacy are supported through conversations held during play and exploration of communication in structured play. Math concepts such as measurement, geometry, architecture and engineering are developed through pretend play, building and games.

Recess is also an important opportunity for unstructured play that encourages cognitive and social development. Studies of Chinese and Japanese students, top achievers academically, found that the short breaks provided every 50 minutes of the school day contributed to learning in a positive way.

Children afforded outside play and indoor play breaks:

  • Are better able to stay on-task in the classroom
  • Show improved recall and memory
  • Are more physically fit
  • Have higher test scores

The skills young children learn and practice through play continue to provide academic success throughout their lifetimes. Whether play takes place in the classroom, on the playground or at home, you can use it to encourage your young child's development. Providing ample time for both structured and unstructured play gives them a life-long love of learning, creativity and success.

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