These days it’s not unusual for pre-school children to have busy schedules packed with early-learning activities and other extramurals.
And while parents try to give their children this kind of head-start with the best of intentions, it’s sometimes easy to forget that the most important stepping stone little ones should be mastering before heading off to school, is good old-fashioned play.
So much so that Barbara Eaton, academic development advisor for the pre-primary school division at ADvTECH, a private education provider, said that when it comes to brain development, time spent in the classroom and at other structured activities is actually less important than time on the playground.
Ms Eaton said research by Sergio Pellis, from the University of Lethbridge in Canada, showed that the experience of play changed the connections of the neurons in the pre-frontal section of a child’s brain, and that without play experience, those neurons remained unchanged.
“Pellis found that it was those changes in the prefrontal cortex during childhood that helped wire up the brain’s executive control centre, which has a critical role in regulating emotions, making plans and solving problems. In other words, play prepares a young brain for life, love and even schoolwork,” Ms Eaton said.
But she warned parents whose children’s rooms look like toy shops that they need to get things back to basics, because the kind of play that is beneficial is primarily the kind of play that requires creativity, imagination and problem-solving.
“In the pre-school phase children need basic toys, not those with roles defined by the media, as the latter limits imagination and the opportunities to plan and create.
“Provide the child with a good set of plain wooden bricks, a few non-battery-operated cars, a soft doll or two, a teddy, some plastic plates and cups and a big ball.
“Old blankets or sheets for making houses and tents, and some boxes and crates will provide the basics for endless creative and imaginative play. Playdough, some crayons and big sheets of paper – not colouring books – as well as some paint will amply provide for creativity,” said Ms Eaton.
She said that parents need to appreciate that in allowing their children plenty of opportunities to play, with others and alone, they are laying the foundations for academic success.
“Young children work hard at play, and it is not for nothing that play is considered a child’s work. They invent scenes and stories, solve problems and negotiate their way through social roadblocks. They know what they want to do and they work and plan to do it.
“We as adults must not be too quick to interfere in this process, but allow them to work things out for themselves.”
Parents who want to ensure their children are exposed to the right kind of free play (which ironically is also the least expensive kind) should ensure that they provide, from an early age, access to materials that will stimulate their sensory systems. These include water, sand, things that make a noise, books with pictures they can relate to and toys of different textures.
“The contents of your saucepan and plastics cupboard will give hours of creative play while teaching concepts of matching, size, shape, texture and sound. Things that bounce, roll and change shape when pressed or pulled help develop spatial skills and visual acuity,” said Ms Eaton.
“Children must be free to move around once they are mobile, obviously with safety in mind, but do not fear the odd mouthful of grass or your child being dirty. Allow them to dig in the garden, pick flowers and when they are older, make mud cakes and grass ‘soup’ for their fantasy games.
“It is through fantasy play that children make sense of their world. They must pretend and take on roles in order to understand. The more time children spend in dramatic play, the more they advance in terms of intellectual development and their ability to concentrate.
“As a parent, it is best to curb the growing fashionable trend of extramurals for little children and allow uninterrupted time and space for fantasy play.
“Choose a pre-school that believes passionately in play-based learning. This allows children to work through emotions such as anger, fear and jealousy, to become more self-disciplined, and to develop resilience.
“All these skills are essential to the development of individuals who can in future master academic challenges and live comfortably in their society.”