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"Imagination is more important than knowledge, for knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world - stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution."

-Albert Einstein (who failed 8th grade)

Do you remember how free you felt when you went outside to play? The freedom to run amok with the other neighborhood children, the exhilarating democracy involved in deciding what to play and how? Throughout history, children have played in large multi-age groups, learning the art of play from their older peers, and cementing their skills by participating in the education of younger children.

Today, many children are not able to play this way with much regularity, and school is often the first – and sometimes only – place where children have an opportunity to congregate with other children and learn these foundational play skills that generations before learned while simply engaging in neighborhood shenanigans among friends.

By the first and second grade, when children are merely six and seven years old, use of play begins to decline dramatically in the curriculum at school, becoming virtually extinct by the third grade. These days, even a decent recess period is becoming an endangered beast. Despite overwhelming research pointing to a correlation between physically active play and children’s ability to focus and their capacity to learn, schools are diminishing recess and physical education in service of more time for instruction.

As kids get older, high-level pretend play in school is in most cases replaced by passive learning methods like worksheets for memorization, extended periods of lectures and note taking, and testing. While passive learning techniques have their value, children thrive with a well-rounded education. A curriculum largely dominated by passive learning methods leaves little room for the active use of the most powerful weapon available in any child’s learning arsenal – imagination.

  • To stimulate the imagination is to actively participate and engage in possibility and the pursuit of understanding.

For children, learning is a hands-on, deeply involved process of exploring a subject, asking questions, and enthusiastically seeking answers. This self-directed approach applies not only to young children of preschool and kindergarten age, but to children of every age, even well into their teen years.

Children’s brains are indeed like sponges, but even sponges reach a point of over-saturation. Continuously funneling information into a child’s brain will eventually make them feel like they might explode.

As an experiment, try asking your kid to sit still and listen to you talk about any subject, even dinosaurs or pizza, for half an hour. How much were they able to absorb? Now, try asking them some guiding questions about a subject, stimulate their imaginations, and then encourage them to go explore their ideas through play – parents are often surprised by the connections children make and the ideas that play can generate.

  • When children engage in a subject or activity during Self-Directed Play, they are able to make astounding connections and develop an impressive number of skills, all the while having a whiz-doodle of a fun time.

Some of history’s greatest innovators credit skills first developed and practiced at a young age during the exploration of the most basic forms of play. Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison both struggled to succeed within the academic confines of school. Despite this early scholastic struggle, as adults they applied imagination and valuable skills originally developed in play – curiosity, wonder, problem solving, persistence – to engage in an extensive process of exploration and discovery, working diligently to generate their monumental contributions to society.

As the seeds of this process of invention are sewn in play during childhood, parents are wise to support such valuable educational play at home by providing the time, and a safe and developmentally optimized space. This puts children in a position at home to practice acquired skills, pursue curiosities and interests, and expand their knowledge of the world in the way that they know best – through play!

Cognitive Benefits of Play at Home:

  • Imagination and creative expression
  • Goal setting and ability to delay gratification
  • Problem solving and planning skills
  • Science skills and development of curiosity
  • Math and spatial skills
  • Literacy skills and vocabulary expansion
  • Use of symbols and abstract thinking
  • Identify passionate interests

Social Benefits:

  • Cooperative play skills
  • Communication and negotiation
  • Integration of emotions, thinking, and motivation
  • Learn to regulate their own behavior
  • Develop empathy and relationship skills
  • Establish neural connections critical for brain function
  • Later development of self-reflection and awareness of their own thought processes

Physical Benefits:

  • Develop fine motor skills
  • Reduce misbehavior from repression of physical energy
  • Naturally reduce anxiety and stress, achieve better periods of focus
  • Explore limits of their own physicality
  • Understand healthy risk taking
  • Explore their ability, flexibility, and strength
  • Promotes good physical health – counteracts obesity

For all these reasons, children need support of educational, Self-Directed Playtime, both in school and at home. This is why it’s important that parents provide the time and an enriching, optimized environment at home. The good news is it is not difficult to guide children in learning the art of play. Parents are uniquely qualified to spend short periods of time finding ways to augment their child’s experience in the enchanted world of play.

To nurture play for children is to sow the seeds to yield adult minds capable of innovative creation, forward-thinking, and emotional and social awareness.

Have your children learned any important lessons through play? We want to hear from you in the comments section below!

Image Credit: Mle Jayne Photography