Wonders of child’s play

25 April 2012 By FARAH A. MOHD ALKAF   What will it feel like to jump off the stairs two steps at a time? What will happen if I take this car apart? Bang on this pot? Spread blocks all over the kitchen floor? Paint the picture all black? Scribble on my arm? Cut out pictures from mum’s magazine? Use my saliva to draw on the window? Eat this Play-Doh? Cut my doll’s hair?   Sounds like a terror at work? … No, just a child at play.   When I was a child, most of my evenings were spent with the neighbourhood kids, cycling together or playing hide-and-seek and tag at the playground. Our play did not involve any toys and we created our own props along the way, using whatever was available.   A good friend remembers placing her bicycle upside down and while rapidly turning the wheel, dropping clumps of grass on it to make ais kacang. Bits of flowers and pebbles became condiments.   The world of make-belief was indeed a wonderful one. For those who were blessed to live near fields, forests and streams, tree-climbing, camping, fishing and jungle exploration were a huge part of childhood.   Is play really so important?   Apparently, very! Play may look like time spent doing nothing much at all. The children are just, well, playing. But it actually helps build a critical cognitive skill called executive function, which is essentially the ability to regulate one’s own behaviour – to control their emotions and behaviour, resist impulses, and use self-control and discipline.   Executive function is important. Poor executive function has been associated with high dropout rates, drug use and crime. Good executive function has been found to be a better predictor of success in school and in life than a child’s IQ.   Unfortunately, play has changed a lot over the years. Nowadays, kids spend a lot of time in front of the TV and playing computer games, engaging in the kind of play that researchers say does not help them build executive function skills. If they are not doing these, they are participating in extra classes, deemed to be “stimulating” and “enriching,” and all happening indoors, under the watchful eye of a facilitator.   All these activities, though, are adult-regulated, which means that children nowadays don’t get much practice regulating themselves. Toys, too, have become more and more realistic and specific, ensuring that children will not have to use much of their own imagination.   Add that to the fact that preschools and kindergartens are expected to do more “academic” activities to prepare children for primary school, the kind of unstructured, imaginative play we use to engage in is fast disappearing from the lives of modern children.   Role play   Play allows children to grow physically, emotionally, socially, linguistically and intellectually. Play, whether alone or with others, allows children to learn about their body and the world through all their five senses.   Consider this scenario: A group of children of different ages meet at the playground. We see them huddled together, talking sometimes loudly, sometimes in whispers, interspersed with guffaws or giggles. Then they take off, running in all directions, someone having apparently been made “It” and needing to “tag” another person.   Screams of laughter are heard for the next 10 minutes until someone announces: “Let’s play something else.” A discussion takes place and within a short time, they are playing another game involving dragons, princesses and doctors. The playground equipment is enlisted as props to enliven the play.   Then a child new to the playground saunters over with a magnifying glass, a net and some containers. Soon, everyone is squatting and peering under slides, see-saws or rocks, looking for bugs. These children will stop only when adults call them home or when the weather becomes threatening.   What’s happening here? When children act out themes from real life (like playing doctor or hairdresser), they act out different roles and learn to use emotions and appropriate actions.   They learn to behave in a way that’s expected of the role they are playing. For example, a child playing a mummy to her dolls may express great annoyance to them or tender love and affection as she puts them to bed.   Greeting, sharing, requesting and turn-taking are some social skills that will develop as children play with other children and adults.   Running and climbing, commando-crawling under slides and see-saws, jumping off logs or rocks, balancing on tree branches, sliding down slides upside down, weaving a grass mat, all help develop gross and fine motor skills, muscle tone, co-ordination and balance.   Using non-realistic things, such as playground equipment, as props in their play ensures the use of their imagination, making them think outside the box and problem-solve.   As they plan what and how they want to play, they use their language extensively, learn new words and ask questions.   They learn to negotiate, explain, and use different expressions and new vocabulary for the roles they play. Every time children play with a new toy, take part in a new game, play in a different environment or encounter an unusual material, they have no choice but to develop new words to tell you what the new play is all about.   Ask any child and she’ll tell you that play is FUN! So go ahead, tell the child to let go of his inhibitions and play to his heart’s content (and pick up a couple of cognitive skills along the way)!     Farah A. Mohd Alkaf is a member of the Malaysian Association of Speech & Hearing.

Taken from ParenThots, thestar online, www.thestar.com.my.