Learning is child's play

01 Mar 2019

Learning is child's play

During the first years of a child's life it is play, not formal learning, that contributes the most to brain development, explains Keryn O'Neil, senior researcher at Brainwave Trust

The message that the first few years of life are extremely important for brain development is becoming more widely known. What may be less clear is how to put this knowledge into practice. Parents wanting to give their child the best start in life are faced with a huge variety of choice and much commercially driven pressure to ensure that their child makes the most of this developmental opportunity. The bewildering number of toys and activities available for babies and children is enough to send parents' stress levels sky-high. And that's before the credit card bill arrives!

Children need stimulation but, as with many things, moderation is key. More is not necessarily better. Many children today are at risk of being over-stimulated or over-scheduled, and this can actually delay rather than encourage their brain development.

During the first years of a child's life, it is play that contributes the most to brain development. We don't need to formally 'teach' young children in order for them to learn. Children have their own interests, and by being supported to follow these, they are likely to be getting the stimulation that they need.

Play provides a wonderful opportunity for parent and child to have fun together, deepening their relationship. Children also need the time and space to play on their own; this provides many chances to expand their imagination, problem-solve, and develop other skills that are less likely to flourish in adult-directed play. At times, boredom may drive the child to make their own discoveries and create their own fun ‒ fantastic life skills and great stimulation for a growing brain.

Simple toys that allow children to use their imagination and creativity have many benefits over the endless plastic creations currently available. Blocks, play dough, a sandpit, creative dress-ups (as opposed to cartoon character-inspired ones), crayons, and paper provide endless options. Household objects such as boxes, blankets, pots, and pans can also provide many hours of fun and learning. The toys and activities that offer the most stimulation for a growing brain often don't have the 'educational' label on them!

Learning and brain development are not limited to toys and activities specifically created for children, but also occur by following their interests in participating in the real world. Household activities that most adults consider "work" are also rich with opportunities for learning. Hanging out the washing, baking, grocery shopping, and weeding the garden provide many occasions for exploration and learning - and while the task will take longer with children involved, it can be much more fun for the adult, too.

Everyday life is full of naturally occurring learning opportunities. Watching the rubbish truck, roadworks, rain going down the drain, or a rainbow can capture the interest of a child when shared with a parent. Take time to stop, observe, and talk with your child about the things happening around them and, when possible, move on only when your child's interest is fading. Be confident in the knowledge that you have just provided them with the stimulation they need, and it didn't cost a cent!

Rich sensory experiences that are so vital for best brain development are readily available in nature. Playing with sand at the beach, feeling the bark on trees, smelling flowers, or listening to birds singing - enjoyed with a loving parent - all provide stimulation, prompting brain connections to form. Sensory experiences can be messy, but children benefit from being able to enjoy such experiences fully, without anyone worrying about the washing!

Playful, creative children who have had plenty of non-screen (TV, computer etc) time for play throughout their early years are more likely to arrive at school with their natural curiosity intact, and a strong desire to learn. That will benefit them more than those whose infancy and preschool years have been filled with activities and little time for play.