From baby to toddler to preschool and beyond, a child imitates and practises real life situations. Play is how children learn. They learn about the world around them. They process cause and effect.

In problem solving they explore how they can manipulate variables to create different solutions. Children use all senses: taste, hearing, seeing, touching, smelling, movement. How parents interact with children in the process of play is crucial. Sound communication skills are vital.

Parents modify their children’s responses and facilitate their understanding.

Parents support children to develop the power to make sense of their world.

Parents help children develop the confidence to manage or fit into a complex world.

We know that if a child is deprived of stimulation it is similarly deprived of the opportunity for cognitive development. Dramatic play and improvisation is an important way to investigate language, real life problem solving, cooperation with others and respect.

Children explore creative alternatives. Children love to play the same scenario time and time again with slight variations to characters involved and solutions provided.

How and what children play has a huge impact on developmental levels. In play children extend their language skills and the many different ways in which language can be used. They explore social issues and respond emotionally.

One often finds that children become truly tearful or afraid, or almost manic in laughter as they become immersed in the “reality” of their own make believe. In play too, children develop fine and gross motor skills. It is the integration of all of these competencies that supports the development of a well grounded personality.

The nature of the environment in which parents and children now play has changed. A more urbanised and populated world finds children with less opportunity to roam the suburbs and the countryside freely. Parks and school yards are now constructed for safety. It appears that there is less and less time for free play.

Indeed many parents seem to feel more at ease if their children are enrolled in more structured activities. They feel their child is less at risk if there is a formal relationship of care between the provider and the family. Yet the opportunity for informal play is crucial. Parents must ensure opportunities within the family environment for play that allows these informal opportunities for both adult/child and child/child interactions.

Parenting is not a formal caretaking duty. Parents need to view play as a fun activity and essential for both child and parent. One does not set out to play with children in order that the child will learn something. Rather parents can facilitate the culture in which play will allow a child to flourish.

Parents manipulate or create the mental stimulation and thinking environment that will support good learning. Parents ensure the opportunity for their children to construct knowledge. Parents can help their child make sense of many situations.

Play allows a child to adopt many different roles and to practice a variety of language responses. Making sense of the world often comes from being silly and constructing nonsense situations. Many parents find the flexibility required in child play difficult.

Often when adults try to dictate the play, children become disinterested. Learning how to follow the flow of natural play comes with practice, patience and a growing understanding of how the child is thinking. Nevertheless as a co-player, the adult must ensure the right level of complexity and direction in play.

Adults should pose questions in a way that stimulates interest and extends the child’s capacity for concentration and involvement.

Parents could be forgiven for thinking that children are running free and playing at whim when visiting a kindergarten. Not so. The professional early childhood teacher has carefully chosen the materials set out for ‘free play’ and is there to guide thinking and problem solving.

Parents must also adopt that role. They should ensure that there are activities to play through which they can encourage learning. Parents must also ensure that their children have the appropriate opportunities to interact and cooperate with others. Initially cooperation is developed between adult and child and then extended to a wider group.

When parents devote time and space to play meaningfully and interactively with their children, they are developing a relationship that extends well beyond that moment of play.

An important aspect in all play, whether structured or free, is to ensure time and space for reflection. The notion of reflection involves providing the knowledge or skills to support such reflective thought. It is this aspect of child play that I believe requires a parent on hand.

Thus play requires time from both the child and the parent. Affording simultaneous time for parent and child is not to invite the parent to become meddlesome in the action of play but rather to ensure that the parent has the time and space to ensure feedback and support.

The parent must provide encouragement, thoughtful and skilled direction and positive language models. It is only if the parent is actually present with the child and listening, that they can provide the knowledgeable frameworks for problem solving.

Certainly a child in solo play can roll a toy car down a slope and watch it travel. However if parents are also engaged then they can suggest making the slope steeper or lessen the gradient. The parent can guide the foundations or problem solving and resources to support the development of new skills.

Taking a genuine interest in what and how their child is playing, not only marks the parent as a co-player, it also affords the opportunity to understand the development and needs of the child. Developing positive and trusting relationships ensures that parental intervention is accepted by the child.

A key to learning is practice. A parent should ensure that play is repeated in many different forms so that skills can be built upon. A well planned period of play will not interfere with the spontaneity and joy of an activity. Rather it will ensure that both parent and child have their shared time enhanced.

copyright 2009 Ruth Hillen aworldofplay

About the Author:
Ruth Hillen is a mother, grandmother and educator. She believes that positive family relationships and child development are supported through play. In Ruth provides adults with a comprehensive range of activities to challenge and stimulate learning in young children.