Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Respecting Playtime as a Time for Development.

From the perspective of adults, crayons, play-dough and puzzles have specific functions and uses in play. However, when a child is first introduced to these objects, they will be completely unaware of the intended uses. As parents, it is important to respect a child's right to discover new things by allowing them the time to learn on their own how they want to use them.

Play-dough introduces a new world of textures, colors, smells (and inevitable tastes) to a child. As if this is not enough for a child, many times play-dough is introduced with all sorts of accessories, cookie cutters, rolling pins etc. And if that is not enough, the presentation is completed with a crash course in how to make a pig, or a horse, or how to use a cookie cutter properly. The entire affair usually culminates with a pop-quiz about how many pigs there are or what color the dough is. The child may try to imitate what the parents did and failing to do only leads to frustration. This is because, in the child's eyes the parents have shown them the only way to use play-dough, and the child has done it wrong; they have failed to make a pig in the same way as their parent.

Instead of focusing on all the tools and accessories, presenting the child with a small piece allows them the patience to discover it for themselves. A child will look at it, touch it, smell it and may even put it in their mouth in the same way that they would most other objects. They may be more interested in the texture or plasticity of the play-dough and want to use it in a completely different way.

A child will benefit from encouraging comments such as, "you are very focused in what you are doing." It is important for parents to avoid exaggerated appreciation and discard the applause that will leave the child feeling like they need to put on a performance. In this way, the child will not feel the burned of creating an artistic masterpiece and will instead enjoy the company of their parent during a moment of play and discovery.

When children are involved in playtime, using their hands to manipulate or build something, there is a simultaneous process of maturity taking place in the brain that does not need to be pushed or accelerated. Children who are given more opportunities to explore and discover new things by them selves will become more self confident and develop an intuitive curiosity when they are exposed to new things.

The same is true when puzzles are introduced to a child. Many parents will pressure a child to finish the puzzle as soon as they can by taking the child's hand and making them grab a puzzle piece or inching a puzzle piece closer. When adults work on a 1000 piece puzzles, they could sit on the coffee table for weeks, yet it seems that for children, the only important thing is how fast they can finish it.  The truth is there is no Summa Cum Laude for finishing puzzles fast. Sometimes, when the puzzle is finished, parents might think it's time to introduce an even bigger puzzle with more pieces as if they have graduated. Considering the importance that repetition and familiarity have during the early stages of development, trying to "challenge," a child in this way at every opportunity is actually a disservice to them.  

Playing with crayons is more complicated than simply putting the crayon and paper together and creating a drawing. A child will make several different discoveries during this time, for example they will discover how best to grip a crayon, or the thickness of a line depending on the pressure they apply. Taking this into consideration, the use of crayons is an important step in the development of a child and "showing them how," by grabbing their hand may undermine the learning process that is taking place naturally. Again, the goal here is not for them to make a Picasso, in fact there is no pressure on the child to understand and practice artistic expression at all. Parents must simply support this as an activity that will help their child develop their motor skills. 

These kind of activities all fall under the category of "play," and are very important opportunities for the child to develop the sustained attention habits that foster the skills required to excel in school and the workplace.  Parents can support their children by being there with them in a calm environment and interacting when it is appropriate (not to teach a lesson on painting or algebra). This is not something that requires hours and hours of a parents time, but the presence of the parent is a key part of creating a calm and safe environment for the child who may turn heir head once in a while looking for that assurance. 

Reference: Different Learners by Jane M. Healy, Ph.D.

Spanish translation coming soon...


  1. Play time is a concept that is greatly misunderstood. This is a very informative article! So proud of you, Mom!

  2. So true- and such valuable advice for carers as well as parents. Thank you.

  3. @ Aunt Annie Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment.