7 Things to Know About Kids & Everyday Play

I firmly believe in the importance of everyday play for kids (and adults, for that matter!). Not only do kids have plenty of years of traditional classroom work ahead of them, but so much can be learned from everyday play and exploration. (Case in point: I’ve had Laurel experimenting in the kitchen since toddlerhood; at 9 years old she can make dinner and bake chocolate cake from scratch...WIN!) Today I’m thrilled to share about the importance of everyday play via a sponsored editorial collaboration with Bright Horizons.

I was thrilled to interview Lindsay McKenzie for this post. Lindsay started working at Bright Horizons in 2003 as a preschool teacher, was promoted to director at the University Park center in 2010, and will lead as center director at the new Brookline location, which will open spring 2014 and offer programs for infants - kindergarten prep. I specifically wanted to address the benefits of everyday play, as well as the common concern I’ve heard during my years writing (and reading) in the parenting space about whether a play-based curriculum is enough to stimulate learning. Here's our interview:

1. Why is everyday play important?

Playing with other children provides many opportunities for learning. Play stimulates brain development and arouses curiosity, which leads to discovery and creativity. The cornerstones of play, curiosity, discovery, trial and error, and social etiquette are the same as the components of learning. Infants learn about shapes and sizes when they try to fit a square block into a round hole. Toddlers learn cause-and-effect by building a block tower and knocking it over. Preschoolers explore creativity by playing pretend.

2. At what ages do kids particularly benefit from learning through play (vs. eventually going to a classroom format)?

Imaginative play develops early in a young child's world. Children begin this explorative process around the age of 2. As toddlers, children play side by side without direct communication; we call this parallel play. As preschoolers, they start to interact with each other by creating complex story lines together. This helps them learn to negotiate, cooperate, and share. Different types of physical play help toddlers develop different skills. Skipping takes balance; climbing builds strength and coordination. Large motor skills, running, throwing, pedaling a bike, appear first; fine motor skills develop a little later. As I mentioned earlier, a toddler can build a tower and learn cause and effect; but, a 3-year-old who carefully stacks blocks into towers is not only learning about gravity and balance, he/she is also developing hand-eye coordination.

3. How does play help kids navigate social relationships?

It's important to give children opportunities to develop relationships. They need practice to learn to share, take turns, and resolve conflict. Playing together gives children those opportunities

4. What are some of your favorite ways to encourage learning through play indoors?

Make sure to have some unstructured, uninterrupted time with children each day. Let them decide what to play. Don’t multi-task during this playtime; just be there with them one-on-one. If they are putting blocks in a basket, take turns, or build something together. This helps children learn about the importance of working together which is important in all relationships. Ask open-ended questions like, “Tell me what you’re drawing there?”

5. What are some of your favorite ways to encourage learning through play outdoors?

The best way to get your child moving is to set a good example. I love to run and play with children. This starts at home by engaging in physical activities. Also, think back to when you were a kid, what was fun for you? Riding a bike, coloring with chalk in your driveway, exploring nature to learn about the changing seasons; discovering a tiny bug will develop infinite curiosity!

6. What does it mean to build a curriculum around play? What should parents expect?

The teacher can take advantage of the children’s interest in block play by planning an entire curriculum around a topic and incorporating goals and objectives for children’s learning into planned building play experiences. Teachers support math concepts (counting, geometry, spatial relations, patterns and measurement) by introducing them in a meaningful context. They can also integrate language and literacy by helping children discuss and document their building play, and by providing books on the topic of building.

7. Some parents worry about whether play is enough. How do you respond to that?

At Bright Horizons, we believe that exposing children to academic concepts through their play is developmentally appropriate. Eventually, children will progress to more academic readiness; and, as they enter Kindergarten, they are more developmentally ready to attend for an extended period of time. By creating a strong foundation of engaging in peer relationships, understanding math and literacy concepts, and comfortably navigating in a group experience, your child will be set up for success. Childhood is a brief and beautiful time; and, allowing your young child ample opportunities to investigate, explore, and discover will be a gift that will last a lifetime!

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Bright Horizons is a leading provider of high-quality early education and preschool programs. Their curriculum is designed to engage children in active learning that prepares them for school while helping them achieve their individual potential and fostering a spirit of community. You can meet Bright Horizons Brookline Center Director Lindsay McKenzie and some of her team at Henry Bear's Park in Brookline on December 13 from 10am - 7pm, where they will be wrapping gifts in return for donations to the Bright Horizons Foundation for Children.

Image credits: photos via Bright Horizons; compilation graphic by Christine Koh