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Play is the work of childhood – with or without computers!

By Betsy Brown Braun

Parent (animatedly): “What did you do in school today?”

Child (contentedly): “I played.”

This response should make your heart sing…but I fear it doesn’t.

In this age of modern technology and an uber competitive environment, parents are convincing themselves that our very youngest children, our pre-schoolers, shouldn’t be playing. They need to be learning the “important stuff” – and that includes learning to read. Parents are suffering from the misguided notion that in order for their children to “compete” in this world, to stay in the game, to claw their way to the top, they have to stop playing in pre-school and start doing some real learning – like working on computers.   

In addition, news headlines are sounding the alarm that U.S. students are falling behind other countries in science and math. Couple that with the ever increasing competition for getting into colleges, into private high schools, into elementary schools, and even into pre-schools, and it is easy to see why children are being pushed and pushed at younger and younger ages. Our faith in the importance of just playing is eroding. It’s math and reading that our pre-schoolers need, you think? I think not.

Here’s the problem. When adults think of children playing, they think of it in the adult sense of the word – a recreational activity that isn’t work. But play is the work of childhood. It is the most potent learning activity of them all.

Play is a crucial ingredient not only in neurological growth but also in supporting development in all realms – social, emotional, cognitive, creative, and physical; practicing the skills the child will need later in life for pursuit of academics and for all social interactions.

Play with toys, interacting with the stuff in their environment lays the foundation for academic learning that includes making sense of the information on the computer. Playing with all of those puzzles and blocks and manipulative toys are the basis for understanding numbers and quantity and fractions, to name but a few.

Imaginative or pretend play – social play – is another powerful learning tool for the young child. Both solitary and with friends, “dramatic play” is a vehicle by which children not only practice the skills they are acquiring, but also process their daily lives. They play out and replay events they are working hard to understand: who is the boss in the family; how does dinner get cooked; when the dog is rushed to the vet; when daddy sends me to my room.

They practice the life they observe all around them: the fire truck, the cab driver, the refuse collector, the dogs and cats and crying babies. Unstructured play with others offers the opportunity to practice social skills such as taking turns, considering another’s viewpoint and needs, learning self control, sharing the power, problem solving, compromise, and trying on different roles. Pretend play is practice for real life. And our pre-schoolers need lots of it.

While your preschooler’s time is best spent interacting with his environment and connecting emotionally and socially with real people, if you are driven to use technology with him, reach for sites that provide that kind of experience. Look for sites that both of you can enjoy - talking, experimenting, and thinking together - as you help him to process and integrate what he is seeing.

So, the next time your child tells you that he “just played” in school, you can feel assured that he did just exactly what he is supposed to be doing at pre-school. He is doing the work of childhood.

Betsy Brown Braun, best selling author of the award winning Just Tell Me What to Say: Sensible Tips and Scripts for Perplexed Parents(HarperCollins), is a child development and behavior specialist, parent educator, multiple birth parenting consultant and founder of Parenting Pathways, Inc. She is also the mom of adult triplets and is the new guest columnist of The Online Mom.

Comment by Erica Rivera, posted 4/15/2009, 9:09 AM:

This was a very helpful article -- it makes fabulous points about how we all need to ease up on our kids, and our selves! This was a great reminder for me of the value of play. Thanks!
Comment by Beatrice Prentice, posted 4/14/2009, 3:26 PM:

Excellent article about the importance of play as the essence of a child's learning experience in the early years.
It is written simply and intelligently so that those who are raising or working with young children will have an easy time comprehending the author's point of view.
Comment by Batsheva Spector, posted 4/14/2009, 1:46 PM:

Well done, Betsy!!! This is a very important message for all parents of young children!
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