**Today’s blog post was written by Whitney James, an all-grown-up KAY kid, currently a sophomore at Elon University**

All play is a significant action, according to John Huzinga, one of the top researchers of play in the 20th century. Meaningful play, however, is one of the best ways for children to become active participants in their own education. Many preschools and other specialized schools, particularly Montessori schools, utilize meaningful play because of this very reason. There are 5 key points that make “play” constitute “meaningful play”:

  1. The child gets a choice about what they want to do
  2. The activity is fun and enjoyable for the child
  3. The play spontaneously evolves (the child doesn’t follow a set script or set of rules)
  4. The play is completely driven by the child’s intrinsic motivation of what they want to do
  5. The play environment is free of risks and the child is free to experiment and try new things

So, children can actively create rules, change them, and act alongside their peers through meaningful play instead of simply passively sitting and listening to a lesson. Although at first glance, having rules seems to completely contradict the concept of playing, having rules is actually super important to successful playing. They can either follow explicit rules, work together to craft them or follow a selected leader; any of these can produce a great variety of benefits for the kids.

How Does Play Help Children Learn?

Of course playing is fun for kids, but it also provides a multitude of physical, emotional and mental benefits. Play therapy is even used in hospitals around the world for children who are hospitalized. These kids get a break from their surgeries and treatments to have fun with other kids, while the mental and physical benefits with play allow them to developmentally keep up with their non-hospitalized peers.

Physically, children develop both gross (balancing, climbing, running, etc.) and fine (handling small toys, game pieces, puzzles, etc.) motor skills through a variety of play activities, both by themselves, with their parents or in a group setting. Cognitive skills (or skills we use to read, reason, pay attention, think, learn, and remember) can be grown through play, by problem-solving and learning about colors, shapes and numbers.

Additionally, memory and attention spans are developed through playing with different games and activities. Through telling stories, jokes and playing as other characters (dolls, action figures, stuffed animals, etc.), language skills are greatly strengthened. Social skills with other children and adults are built by learning how to cooperate, share, take turns, and negotiate, which are all translatable skills into their later lives.

There are also good things that come out of play that don’t fit under a specific label or category. Playing gives children self-worth as they grow in their abilities and realize what they’re capable of, even at a young age. Concentration is also a valuable tool gained through meaningful play, especially when a kid becomes completely immersed in what they’re doing, or a competition or competitive game is involved.

What can parents do?

Believe it or not, kids are actually more creative when their parents are actively involved in the play, not simply handing them the toys or activities. As a parent, you are your child’s first friend and playmate, and you have a HUGE role in their playtime.

    • Be sure to observe your child playing. Figure out what their favorite thing to do is and what they can do well, and what they’re having problems with.
    • Follow your child in what they’re doing- make sure they’re controlling where the play’s going, but definitely feel free to add to the play’s complexity.

Make sure to get rid of the adult idea that toys are only made for one purpose and be creative! You and your child will get so much more out of the play if you open up to new ideas.

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