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The Importance of Play, by Dr Richard C Woolfson
Play is a serious business as far as a growing child is concerned, not serious in the sense that she has a frown on her face, nor serious in the sense that she weighs up all her actions very carefully during play, but serious in the sense that play is very important to her all-round development. And it doesn’t matter whether the child you mind is a one-year-old infant or a 12-year-old secondary school pupil – play matters.
Of course every child plays for fun, and she thoroughly enjoys herself while playing. Yet she also learns at the same time. There are many different types of play, each stimulating a different aspect of the child’s life. The particular form of play that she prefers at any one time depends on her individual level of maturity, her individual interests, other distractions around her at the time and the toys she has available. By understanding the various play opportunities open to her, you can ensure that she has a very broad range of activities when you mind her.
Categories of Play
Do your best to encourage the children you mind to have a variety of play activities, as each contributes to development in its own special way. Here are the main types of play you’ll see across the age range of children you mind:
exploratory/discovery play (from birth onwards). Most of a young child’s play is exploratory in nature, as she tries very hard to find out as much as she can about objects within her reach. This type of activity can involve touching, chewing, reaching, shaking, throwing, banging, staring, holding, and in fact any form of action at all which helps her learn more. Older children also enjoy their own form of discovery play with computers.
physical/energetic play (from three months onwards). This is a more adventurous type of play because it involves her moving her entire body, unlike exploratory play which might only involve her fingers and hands. Physical play – whether crawling, climbing or walking – enables a child to explore new territory.
imaginative play (from one year onwards). Once an infant is in her second year, she begins to use symbolic thought which lets her pretend that one object represents something else that isn't in front of her. She pretends, for instance, that her rattle is a cup, or that it is a doll, or anything at all.
social play (from three years onwards). A typical toddler doesn’t mix with other children her own age when she is in their company. She likes to stare at them but prefers to play on her own. Yet this is the first stage in social play. Within a couple of years, not only will she play happily with other children, she’ll also co-operate with them.
language play (from one year onwards). Words and language fascinate a young child. She likes to makes sounds herself, to use words whenever possible, and she also likes to listen to you speak to her. Songs, nursery rhymes and poems amuse; she never tires of hearing you sing that familiar song to her. Gradually, she tries to join in.
creative play (from one year onwards). As soon as a child is able to grip a pencil or crayon, she starts to create images on paper; and this natural creative desire continues throughout childhood, whether it is expressed through drawing, painting, clay modelling or model making.
Bear in mind that a child you mind has much more fun when you play with her – as long as you don’t take over! The caricature of the childminder playing with a doll’s house, while the child looks on with a disenchanted expression on her face, is more common than you might expect. If you make sure that you don’t dominate when playing with the child, however, you’ll add greatly to her enjoyment.
For instance, research has shown that a child plays more dynamically, enthusiastically and with greater variety in the presence of a caring adult than when she is left on her own. Just being there with her when she plays makes her willing to be more adventurous and to try harder! And a child whose carer shows a definite interest in her play activities – by talking to her about her toys as she plays with them – is likely to play longer with each toy. As far as the child you mind is concerned, your presence alongside her makes her feel that her play is very important.
One of the most effective ways to become involved in a child’s play is to let her start the activity freely herself and then to gently steer it in a particular way. For instance, suppose you mind a toddler who is making random shapes with small wooden blocks; you could suggest that she tries to build a specific shape such as a house or a tower. This steers the focus of her play, making it more directed, and at the same time increases her pride in herself because you didn’t suggest an alternative. And another useful strategy is to broaden a child’s play; for example, if you see that she is painting but has become bored with this activity, suggest another picture for her to paint.
These strategies let the child you mind know that you value her choices in play because you give her helpful suggestions that enable her to continue with the theme, instead of directing her into a different game or toy altogether. Your enthusiasm for her ideas boosts her interest and enthusiasm for play.
Boys & Girls
Thank goodness the days have passed when a boy was thought to be a “sissy” if he preferred to sit indoors and paint while all his chums preferred to play football outside; and fortunately a girl is no longer considered a “tomboy” because she prefers a baseball bat to a skipping rope. The stereotyping of so-called boys’ games and so-called girls’ games has weakened considerably. Despite this, however, the chances are that many parents would be troubled if you gave their four-year-old boy a Barbie doll to play with; they may be concerned about other people’s comments.
There is no right or wrong approach to gender differences in play. Much of it comes down to personal preferences. Suppose a five-year-old girl you mind wants to play football all the time with the boys you mind. Playing with a football won’t cause her any harm, and after a while she’ll probably want to play different games anyway. However, you will have to discuss it with her parents and take their views into account
The problem is that refusal to let a child play with a game or toy normally associated with the opposite gender can create self-doubts in the child’s mind. Encourage the child’s parents to let you take an even-handed approach to this aspect of play, wherever possible. Bear in mind that every child (whether girl or boy) should have a wide range of play activities to help her develop her self-confidence to the maximum.
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