The Power of Play

Preschool education experts say playing is part of learning

Play may look simple to you. But a lot is happening behind the scenes. Your child is solving problems, building skills and overcoming physical and mental tests.

The importance of play is best summed up Dr Tan Seok Hui, a visiting fellow at the Department of Psychology, National University of Singapore (NUS), “Play is an essential process for young children because it is an opportunity for them to pick up and experiment with a wide range of skills, ranging from language and emotion to understanding their environment.”

While play is an important aspect of childhood, it has also become an essential part of learning for children. The younger the child, the bigger the impact play has on his ability to learn.

Play On
Young children pick up important skills during play. They develop physically, build up their personalities and confidence, and learn to be creative. Dr Tan of NUS outlines the benefits. By playing, your child• DEVELOPS AN UNDERSTANDING OF EMOTIONS. “He learns why he feels the way he does, how he articulates these emotions, and to experiment with a wide range of emotions,” Dr. Tan says.• PICKS UP LANGUAGE AND COMMUNICATION SKILLS. Through interacting with his parents, caregivers and other children, he learns new words and sentences.• LEARNS SOCIAL SKILLS AND HOW TO INTERACT WITH OTHERS.  Dr. Tan explains, “It gives him a good foundation for when he enters the school environment. Learning to cultivate friendships is an important skill, and playing often during preschool means he’ll be able to settle into the official school environment easily.”• DEVELOPS HIS IMAGINATION. He learns to become more creative and expressive, which in turn benefits his social development.

The Importance of Being Playful

Nicole Green, assistant professor of Early Childhood and Special Needs Academic Group at the National Institute of Education (NIE), explains, “Learning is a lifelong process. In young children, there is interplay between learning and development. Learning leads to development and development leads to learning.”

Lemmy Teo, executive director of LEGO Education Centre, says learning is especially important for children between 18 months and 4 years. Research shows that a child develops most rapidly, cognitively and physically, during these ages. For this group of children, he says, play is the most effective form of learning. It allows them to learn at a pace that suits the child’s ability, while maintaining a level of fun.

Lemmy notes, “When this form of learning is introduced to a child during this early age, it helps to set the foundation for interest-driven learning, and eventually independent learning.”

Being actively involved in the process makes learning easier, says Selene Syvenky, an early childhood development consultant based in the United States. For instance, you learn to drive by actually driving a car during lessons. Hands-on learning is even more important for your child because she is too young to think things through.

NIE’s Nicole explains, “Preschoolers learn through listening and talking, exploring and discovering, modelling and questioning. They also learn through reading and storytelling, through creating and appreciating music, art and dance. They learn while running, jumping, climbing and on walks around the neighbourhood. They learn in everyday, authentic indoor and outdoor activities.”

Take a set of building blocks. An infant can pick up a block and hold it in his hand; a toddler can pile the blocks on top of each other; while a preschooler can count the number of blocks and even name the colours. Your child would have picked up these skills through play.

Raihan Jumari, acting head of EduPlay at Julia Gabriel Centre for Learning, notes that children find play an exciting and stimulating experience. “Studies have shown that, in her first five years, a child is trying to make sense out of the world. She wants to ‘connect’ with what’s happening around her,” adds the mother-of-three, whose youngest is 18 months.

Lessons to learn

Play can be divided into cognitive and social categories. Infants, toddlers and preschoolers engage in “onlooker” play when they watch other children playing, before deciding whether to participate in the action. At other times, they prefer “solitary” or “parallel” play, when they have little or no interaction with others.

In “sensorimotor” play, tots explore bodily sensation and motor movements with objects and people. For instance, an infant uses the action of pushing and rolling a ball to experience the sensation and pleasure of movement.

In “symbolic” or pretend play, a child building a house with blocks learns that objects can represent other things, which helps him to understand how words are used to represent objects.

When a child plays dress-up, he takes on the role of someone else, and therefore thinks and behaves like his pretend persona, for example, a policeman. Such “dramatic” and imaginative role-playing helps them to understand others and develop feelings of empathy. They even learn simple rules of social behaviour when they play games.

A handful of parents are kickstarting their children’s learning process as early as 6 months. At Julia Gabriel’s PlayNest, which caters to babies and toddlers between six and 18 months, the programme concentrates on helping them understand their senses.

“At 6 months, they can’t sit up yet, so we focus on physical abilities like seeing, feeling and tasting,” says Raihan. “It’s pepped up with interesting activities such as puppet shows and music, with a healthy snack in between, to inculcate table manners.”