As a parent, you know that your child’s academic achievement is important for later success in life. Few would debate this idea. But in recent years, the question of how to support academic growth has sparked fierce debate.
Clever marketers would have you believe that technology has somehow accelerated children’s ability to learn and absorb information. Policy makers and some educators advocate intensive academic training for children.
A national debate over academics versus play has emerged in recent years. Some argue that young children can and should be pushed harder academically, while others fear that this focus on academics is not only ineffective, but potentially damaging. Parents are left wondering who’s right.
What if the answer fell somewhere in the middle? Reams of worksheets and drills are no fun for anyone. On the other hand, a child who spends hours on end playing alone with action heroes probably isn’t developing his academic potential. But, enriching, open-ended, parent-supported play can and does provide the optimal environment for all areas of development, including academic growth.
The Benefits of Play
The question of whether intense academic instruction is appropriate for young children has been the subject of numerous studies.
One such study published in Educational Leadership followed 100 children for several years. Half the children in the study attended an academic preschool and received academic instruction at home. The remaining children attended a hands-on, exploratory based preschool and had ample opportunities for rich play at home.
At the beginning of kindergarten, the children who attended the academic preschools knew a few more alphabet letters than the other children, but scored no higher on tests assessing cognitive development.
By the end of kindergarten, the children who attended the play-based preschools had caught up and passed the first group. They also showed more creativity and they expressed more positive feelings about school and learning in general.
Researchers have identified several developmental areas that are enhanced by play. Healthy growth in these areas is critical to later academic success.
Executive function refers to the ability to process and organize information, delay impulses and focus. Many teachers believe executive function is more important to successful learning than any other skill. Without executive function, children have difficult time learning no matter how intelligent.
Elena Bodrova, an educational researcher at Mid-Continental Research for Education and Learning believes today’s epidemic of impulsive, unfocused children might be due in part to a lack of quality play.
She points to a study first conducted over 70 years ago that measured children’s ability to delay impulses and stay focused, as well as the quality of their play.
The same study has been replicated today and the results are startling. Modern children are significantly less able to play creatively.
At the same time, their executive function performance was delayed by as much as two years compared to children of years past. Through daily play opportunities, children learn to take turns. They are allowed the freedom to make mistakes and learn from them. Children learn to take risks and solve problems. All these experiences can lead to success in the classroom.
Watch a baby play with toys and the first thing you’ll notice is her lack of intent. Babies explore toys. They smell them, taste them or pound them together.
As babies grow and develop, their play becomes more intentional. A toddler makes “vroom-vroom” sounds while pushing a car. A doll is rocked or put down for a nap.
This stage is known as the functional stage because children use toys for their functional purpose.
Around age five or six, though, children begin to develop abstract thought. A child playing house might use a pine cone or rock to represent food.
Children playing together might assign roles and develop scripts for their play. This ability marks entry into the symbolic stage of development.
Children can begin to understand complex, symbolic thought processes.
From philosophy to chemistry to geometry, higher academic learning requires the ability to process symbolic thought. Children who have regular opportunities for imaginative play seem to naturally enter this stage earlier than those lacking play opportunities.
Before children can learn to write their name, they must be able to make the lines and curves that make up letters.
Before they can make these lines and curves, sometimes referred to as pre-writing symbols, they must be able to hold a pencil.
The process of writing, which seems automatic to us, actually requires several steps for success.
What is the best way to build fine motor skills?
You guessed it – play!
Building a tower with blocks, manipulating play dough or painting a picture all build motor skills.
How about rubber band boards or puzzles? These fun, simple games build the skills children need for later writing activities in school.
Like learning to read or write, math learning follows some predictable rules. Long before children start adding and subtracting sums, they are learning the basic language of math – shapes, quantities and patterns.
Researchers have found that children must spend a long time manipulating numbers before they’re ready for worksheets.
Children who bypass this stage of math development may learn facts by rote, but they never gain a deep understanding of the processes of arithmetic. Play is the best way to develop a foundation in math.
By counting small toys or handling change in a pretend cash register, children get hands-on knowledge of quantities and counting. Block sets provide experiences with shapes, planes and patterns.
What does communication have to do with academic success?
Children need good communication skills to ask questions, listen for answers and hunt for information.
In a classroom setting, children without these skills tend to get lost.
Play, especially pretend play, boosts communication skills. Children learn the finer points of conversation – turn taking, interpreting body language and reading facial expressions. Play also boosts vocabulary.
Kids aren’t immune to the pressures and stress of modern life, but play can serve as a reset button, offering a restorative antidote for parents and children alike.
Through play, children learn to relate to each other and understand themselves. Creative play is a calming, centering activity for most children.
This sense of balance and peace can translate into better academic achievement. In fact, a 2009 study published in the journal Pediatrics found that children who were given regular opportunities for outdoor play at school were happier and performed better academically in class than children attending more structured programs.
10 Simple Activities to Boost Academics Through Play
Nurturing your child’s academic growth through play doesn’t take hours of planning or effort. It starts with a remembrance of your own childhood. Think back to the experiences you loved as a child and incorporate some of those activities into your own home. Below are a few ideas to get you started:
- Get outdoors whenever possible. Go for a bike ride, play a game of catch, look under rocks for bugs or watch the stars. Set up a tent in your backyard and have a campout. Count birds or look for patterns in leaves. Outdoor activities build motor skills, creativity and problem solving.
- Gather a few simple art supplies, such as washable paint, paint brushes and thick paper, play dough, clay or collage materials. Spend an hour or two once a week nurturing your inner artist. Set up the art materials outside or on hard surfacing so the messes are easy to clean up.
- Read stories together and then act the stories out or make puppets. Traditional folk stories with a few characters and a predictable plot are good choices. Have a party or celebration after you finish reading a story together. For example, read C.S. Lewis,’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and then make Turkish delight or have a tea party. Make magic wands after reading Abiyoyo by Pete Seeger. Your kids will never know they’re learning important literacy concepts!
- Build something together. Building materials nurture fine motor, math, visual-spatial and symbolic thinking skills. Simple wooden blocks make fabulous toys because they’re open-ended. Build a zoo, an airport, a castle – you’re limited only by your imagination. Take pictures of the finished products before you tear them down. Turn the photos into a book. Or, gather photos of real castles or buildings and try to replicate them.
- Head to a second hand store to pick up old scarves, dresses, coats and shoes. Make a dress-up box for your little actor and watch your child’s imagination and language skills soar. Play store or restaurant. Use pretend money and a cash register to encourage counting.
- Drag home a cardboard box from an appliance store. Kids are masters at transforming old boxes into wonderful adventures. Maybe one day, the box is a spaceship. The next day, it’s a pirate ship. One old box can offer weeks of entertainment, until it falls apart and it’s time for a new box.
- Plant a garden together. Gardening can be a wonderful family play activity that teaches math and science concepts. Grow pole beans up bamboo teepees to make hiding places or make dolls out of leaves and sticks.
- Stock up on board games. Board games are an excellent way to teach almost any academic skill. Depending on the game you choose, board games reinforce math, science, problem solving or literacy skills. Board games also teach executive function skills like focus, turn taking and impulse delay.
- Pull out a puzzle. Keep a puzzle or two in your closet for rainy days. Like board games, puzzles teach problem solving and focus. They also boost visual-spatial skills.
- Make a writing center. Most kids hate worksheets, but love meaningful writing experiences. Gather some paper, envelopes, stamps, clipboards and writing implements to get started. Have your kids make grocery lists, calendars, stories or invitations. How about launching a family newspaper? Your budding reporter can write about the most recent family news, or even make up some silly fictional stories!
How to Choose Right Toys
Most toys on the market today aren’t really made to nurture a child’s development. Take, for example, action figures associated with movies and cartoons. Kids tend to play with these toys in one way – by following the scripts they’ve seen on television. Owning a few of these toys is okay, of course, but try to buy high-quality, open-ended toys whenever possible. Here are a few clues that a toy is worth buying:
- A toy can be played with in more than one way. Wooden block toys, for example, have thousands of uses.
- The toy is durably made with non-toxic materials. You can imagine handing this toy down to your grandchildren.
- The toy should be simple. Have you ever tried to construct a building set with 1,000 tiny pieces? Chances are, you put it together once and then relegated it to the back of the toy box.
- The toy encourages creativity and problem solving. It is challenging, but not frustrating.
- The toy offers opportunities for parents and children to collaborate together.
Spielgaben toys offer all of the benefits mentioned above. Our high-quality wooden toys are made for years of creative play. Finished with only non-toxic materials, these toys are completely safe. Best of all, Spielgaben toys provide the creative, open-ended play designed to nurture your child’s development and boost academic success.
Spielgaben open-ended play system is a great way to teach children crucial mathematics basics while enjoying quality play time between parent and child. So we married the play set and guide books to today’s primary school curriculum (1st to 6th grade) and dedicated two of the four guide books to showing how easy it is to teach core mathematical concepts while children play with the Spielgaben wooden aids.
Browse our homepage to learn more about Spielgaben toys.