Monday, February 16, 2015

The Importance of Play

90 percent of a child's brain develops in the first five years of life.

I have heard this statistic cited several times as a reason for structured "lessons" for little ones and as a reason for "the best" preschool and an early start.

Let me just start by saying: I don't think those folks are wrong. Man, toddlers and preschoolers are just sponges. It's amazing to me how quickly they learn and the things they pick up when we don't even think they are paying attention. Why would you NOT want to take advantage of that? It's a prime opportunity to instill in your child, at a very young age, a life-long love of learning.

But at the same time, I think there can be too much of a good thing. I think we can get too caught up in the metrics of learning ("Well, my child was reading Harry Potter by the time he was six months old!"), and I know that we (moms in particular) have a tendency to compare too often and get a bit competitive about how our little ones are doing. Heck, just this past week during tot school, a cute little boy was making me feel anxious because he knows his entire alphabet (like, not just the song, can identify specific letters!), colors, shapes, and can count to 10. And he's younger than Em. Who sings the alphabet minion-style "Do-bee-Do-bee-Do-bee-Do."

That's when I need to take a step back, smack myself on the cheek a little, and remind myself that it doesn't matter. My child may not know those things yet, but I know she is incredibly smart, wickedly funny, independent, creative, ambitious, and determined. So if she thinks all colors are blue and counts "seven, eight, seven, eight" over and over again, that's just fine.

And so I'll keep doing my little lessons with her, and I know that she'll eventually start singing the right letters of the alphabet. But I don't want to get so caught up in drilling her that I forget another crucial part of learning - letting her just play.

I saw this article shared across social media several times this week: Blocks, Play, Screentime and the Infant Mind (NPR). It's more specifically about the differences in brain development between watching TV and playing with blocks, but it got me thinking more about Play and why it's so important.

I'm no psychologist. I have no background in childhood education. I have no expertise to write on a topic like this except that I'm a mom. I can look at my child's eyes while she's playing and see the wheels turning. I can see her dumping sand from one bucket to another as she grapples with concepts of containers, space, and gravity. I watch her as she thoughtfully observes other children at the park, and then tries to make her body do the same motions to climb, jump, run, and move.

This week in particular, I set her up on the patio with an easel and some paint and let her go wild while I just watched.
She explored the way the paint felt on her hands (and face, and legs) and then how it applied to different textures - not just the paper, but the floor, the grass, and the dog.
She mixed colors, she used different arm motions to see the different strokes that resulted, she got a little distracted and went running into the yard to pick up sticks and grass and leaves.
And all the while she kept babbling on in her little language I don't understand hardly a word of, wanting to tell me about everything she's seeing and learning.
Was it a crucial moment in her childhood development? No. But it definitely reminded me how important it is to just have some free time. No agenda, no end goal, just an opportunity to let my little one explore and learn on her own. To let her play.
And those little fingerprints on my backdoor? I can't bring myself to wipe them away.

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