By LEONG SIOK HUI
Decades of research are backing up the fact that play is an intrinsic part of childhood. Yet, children are playing less these days.
In a society obsessed with exam scores and didactic approaches, kids as young as three to four are expected to learn writing and reading.
“Accelerated learning” or “boosting your kids’ IQ” are popular marketing spiels for preschools and kindergartens. But the increased focus on reading and math is eating into children’s playtime.
In the United States, children, ages two to five, spend an average of four-and-a-half hours a day watching TV, according to findings by the Nielsen Company.
For starters, watching TV and indulging in video or computer games are not real play. In essence, play engages the whole being, especially in young children where every movement and gesture is accompanied by thought and emotion. Besides, many toys today leave little to the imagination. The child needs only to press some buttons to get some reaction.
“There is little wonder that the child is soon bored, becomes destructive, and sooner rather than later demands attention,” according to Christopher Clouder and Martyn Rawson of Waldorf Education published by Floris Books in 2003.
“Real play is hard work and after an intensive day’s playing, kids are healthily tired and ready for bed,” the authors assert.
In psychological terms, play is participatory and the child makes decisions and solves problems, social psychologist Datuk Dr Chiam Heng Keng clarifies.
“The child decides the type of play he likes and he enjoys it,” adds the Kuala Lumpur-based child development and early childhood expert. However, play can be structured in the sense that the parent or educator furnishes the environment.
“For example, in Montessori schools, the educator structures the environment to arouse the child’s curiosity, making the child want to investigate how things work,” Dr Chiam explains. “It’s unstructured only in the sense you’re not forcing the child to do it in a set way.”
|‘Just playing’ is what most experts exhort for children up to age seven as the best way to nurture their development.
Also, there are varying types of play depending on the child’s growth stages.
“For example, one-year-olds do imitative play, two-year-olds parallel play while five-and six-year-olds do co-operative play,” explains clinical and educational psychologist Selina Ding.
“We need to respect the stages of play and not accelerate them.”
Studies plugging play
“Just playing” is what most developmental psychologists, neuroscientists and education experts exhort for children up to age seven as the best way to nurture their development and prep them for academic success later in life.
Decades of research have demonstrated that children’s innate curiosity leads them to develop their social, emotional and physical skills independently, through exploration or play (The Serious Need To Play by Melinda Wenner; Scientific American Mind, February/March 2009).
“Children who show the greatest capacities for social make-believe play also display more imagination and less aggression, and a greater ability to use language for speaking and understanding others,” according to Israeli psychologist Sara Smilansky in her research paper titled Sociodramatic Play: Its Relevance To Behavior And Achievement In School (1990).
In a US study conducted by the University of Kansas in 1995, psychologists tracked 42 families with one- and two-year-olds and recorded every verbal interaction between parents and children. Kids who mastered the widest vocabularies and richest use of language didn’t benefit from direct instructions but rather through storytelling, singing and playing.
In her dealings with young patients who suffer from emotional and psychological problems, Ding uses play therapy.
“I’m a big fan (of play therapy),” admits Ding whose patients range from 18-month-olds to teenagers.
“Play helps the child to interact, to regulate his emotions, and develop his inter- and intra-personal skills. And play is self-therapeutic.
“How do you talk to young children who can’t cognitively reason with you? Through play!” she adds. “I use play to engage and build rapport with the child and it allows me to read his mind, behaviour and emotion.”
|‘Our society has forgotten to strike a balance,’ says psychologist Selina Ding.
If a child’s social and emotional skills are not properly developed, it will affect his cognitive development.
“I have seen children who excel in their studies and have a high IQ yet they can’t cope when they have problems because they don’t know how to handle their emotions,” Ding explains.
“Human beings don’t only need cognitive skills but also social and emotional skills that we apply to our relationships with partners, families, friends and the community.” Ding prescribes occupational therapies (hands-on experiences) for children who have learning disabilities.
“It helps improve their motor skills, and balances their left and right co-ordination so that they can think better,” she adds.
Some of her therapy sessions include back-to-basics play like sand play.
But play is not the only thing that helps a child develop, Ding says. The child also needs to read factual information or understand abstract concepts.
“Our society has forgotten to strike a balance. It’s okay to expose kids to technology as long as you don’t neglect natural play or other parts of their emotional balance,” says Ding. “I’m a true believer of holistic development, it makes you a whole person.”
As stay-at-home dad and writer Brian Gresko sums up best in his article In Defense of Childhood (Huffington Post, Oct 28, 2010): “Many of the most important skills are untestable – imagination, general optimism and lightness of heart, the capability to love another creature, to empathise and demonstrate compassion.”
Bake, play, learn