Play. It's every child's favorite pastime. After all, you are only young once. But is there more to play than meets the eye? Believe it or not, play is actually nature's greatest learning tool.

Free Play

Take for example "free period" at a daycare center. Every day, for an hour or better, children play at various centers. There is no teacher instruction during this time. Each child, while asserting an independence through choice, is learning something.

    * The children playing with the blocks are learning to work cooperatively.
    * The role playing in the kitchen allows the children to express their views of the world, to act out while they play socially with their peers.
    * The art center provides an opportunity for children to strengthen their fine motor skills by using scissors, crayons, chalk, etc.
    * In the quiet area beads are being sorted into sizes, shapes and colors. This activity fosters math readiness skills in that sorting and classifying help the child understand the actual concept of numbers whereas memorizing numbers does not tell a child what these figures represent.

Child Development

During "free play" children develop their social, intellectual, emotional and physical skills.

Social Development

When a child plays cooperatively with other children he is learning to share, to work together towards a common goal and to, at times, take on the leadership role. These are very important social skills.

Intellectual Development

All activities noted during "free period" contribute to a child's intellect. Playing house demands a grown-up attitude, complete with grown-up words (vocabulary building), actions and expressions (emotional development). When papa tells mama his bowl is empty and mama tells him he's only getting 1/2 a bowl of soup, their perception of size and volume becomes quite clear.

Emotional Development

During "free play" the room is filled with children learning to deal with the complexities of life. Johnny, who thrashed the block village because he couldn't have Michael's truck learned from the shock on Michael's face and the intervention of the teacher that knocking over the village was perhaps not the best way to get the truck. Susie, playing alone in the quiet center is learning to deal with frustration when she cries because she is having difficulty stringing the beads properly. All the while the kitchen is full of jubilant laughter.

Physical Development

Cutting, pasting, drawing and stringing beads - these activities develop the small muscles of the hand (fine motor skills) which are used for later skills like writing. Running, climbing, riding a tricycle or swinging - these activities develop the large muscles (gross motor skills), enhancing a child's coordination.

Teacher Initiated Activities

Teacher-initiated activities also foster a child's development through play. For example:

    * singing develops both vocabulary and listening skills. In order for a child to learn the new words in a song he or she must listen carefully.
    * Dancing develops muscles.
    * Art and crafts unleash a child's imagination.
    * Story time builds vocabulary and listening skills while turning a child onto the wonder and amusement of books.
    * Through water and sand play a child learns about science in a way only nature and hands-on experience can teach.
    * And of course, outside play leads to a whole new world of learning experiences from listening to the birds and watching plants grow, to climbing the slide and going down all by oneself (confidence building - self- concept).

Age Appropriate Toys and Learning Material

In order for play to be a learning experience there must be an abundance of age appropriate toys and learning materials. Moreover, these toys and materials should be stored in an orderly fashion where the children can both see and find them. This is important because when toys and their various parts are strewn about they are not appealing and consequently are not used. As a result, children become frustrated and show little interest in doing anything much less learning in the process.

Whether a child is being cared for at home, at a daycare center or home, play is essential. By understanding how play affects a child's growth and development, parents and caregivers can provide children with both the opportunity and the materials to incite their inexhaustible yearning to see how the world works.

To learn more about play and child development visit your local library.