Every early childhood and primary teacher has heard this sentence at least once. The younger your students are, the more often you've probably heard it.
When non-educators say this, they are perpetuating the false assumption that play and learning are two entirely separate concepts. This misconception leads to the belief that learning can only occur through structured and guided learning.
When you give young children ample time to play, they get opportunities to develop valuable skills. Some of the most important are social skills.
What Are Social Skills and Why Are They Important?
Social skills are abilities learned over time that allow us to collaborate and relate to each other more effectively.
By strengthening their social skills, children begin to interact together positively, develop their cognitive abilities, boost their self-esteem, and improve their overall mental health.
Which Socials Skills Does Play Help Develop?
The development of social skills leads to several benefits. However, the following four are often considered the most vital.
When young children enter an early childhood environment, they are usually most comfortable speaking with their immediate family. As a result, they may be withdrawn and lack the confidence to communicate with teachers and peers.
Play helps children:
Learn how to communicate their ideas, needs, and wants verbally and non-verbally.
Explore non-disruptive ways to get the attention of adults and peers.
Show interest in engaging with others appropriately.
Examples to encourage communication skills:
I can see that Teresa is in front of the shelf you're trying to reach. If you want to get behind her, you can kindly ask to step to the side.
You don’t need to yell to get my attention. You can raise your hand when you want to ask me a question.
I can hear you stomping your feet angrily because you want to help them build the tower. If you want to play with them, ask if you can add some blocks to it.
Early learners tend to be self-centered. Therefore, they sometimes have difficulty working together when they have different ideas. Pretend play gives children opportunities to share resources, reach goals, and adopt various roles with others.
Play helps children:
Explore the concept of fairness.
Practice taking turns.
Learn how to solve problems.
Examples to encourage collaboration skills:
Oscar wants to paint, but you have both paintbrushes in your hands. What can you do so that Oscar can paint as well?
There’s only one red racecar, but three other children want to play with it. How can we make sure that everyone gets a chance to play with it?
I can see that you both want to sit on the same spot on the carpet. How can we decide who sits there for circle time today?
Conflict resolution goes hand in hand with collaboration. While children are learning to work together, conflicts will inevitably arise no matter how well they get along with one another. During collaborative dramatic play, young learners will often have minor disagreements. These instances are excellent learning opportunities.
Play helps children:
Express their frustrations and listen to others.
Explore natural consequences.
Examples to encourage conflict resolutions skills:
Timmy, I can see that you are very upset that Ethan cut in front of you in the line. You can explain to him that you were in line first. Ethan, can you turn around so you can hear Timmy?
Laura, Henry told you that he doesn’t like when you knock over his blocks. You just toppled his tower, and Henry went to the art table instead. Why do you think that is?
Ezra pushed you on the swing for a while now, Jessica. Recess is almost over, and Ezra hasn’t had a turn on the swings today. What can we do to fix that?
As we have established earlier, children are naturally ego-centric. As a result, it can be challenging for them to keep the feelings of others in mind. When children pretend play, they can observe the behavior of others and pick up on social cues and body language, an importand part of their emotinal and social development.
Play helps children:
Notice how others are feeling.
Realize how their behavior directly impacts others.
See situations from the perspectives of others.
Examples to encourage empathy skills:
You snatched the toy out of Carla’s hand, and now she’s crying. How does snatching make her feel?
Alexis is trying to read books in the library. Do you think that she can read when you’re yelling so loudly?
You bumped into Andrew, and he fell. How do you feel when you fall down? How can you help Andrew feel better?
What Happens When Children are Unable to Play?
When a young child lacks play opportunities or struggles to engage effectively with peers, they are more prone to engage in the following behaviors.
Rotation Through Activities Without Engaging
Play helps children develop interests that can hold their attention for extended periods. When a child has an exceedingly short attention span, they have difficulty participating in activities or games with others. As a result, they may be more of a spectator who is hesitant to join other children engaging in play.
Frequent Interruptions and Disruptive Behaviors
A child who has not yet developed strong communication skills will struggle to share their thoughts and ideas. Therefore, they may be more prone to outburst and calling out. This behavior stems from an inability to express themselves adequately. As the child learns to communicate, they are less likely to cause severe disruptions.
Inability to Pick Up on Verbal and Non-Verbal Clues
When children haven’t developed empathy, they may have trouble “stopping at the first stop.” They may also struggle to read body language. Children may be excluded from games and collaborative play because of this.
Reliance on Adult Attention
A child who doesn’t play effectively with their peers will often prefer the company of adults. Sometimes children who exhibit this behavior will be labeled as “mature.” However, they often lack the skills required to engage with other children and may benefit from spending less one-on-one time with the teacher.
Play All Day!
When administrators and parents want to see concrete examples of learning, teachers can feel pressured to lead more structured and guided lessons. However, play is essential in helping children develop the skills they need to communicate, collaborate, resolve conflict, and empathize.
As Mr. Rogers once said, “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.”