“Play is often talked about is if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” —Fred Rogers
As a parent, I always thought play is play. Sure, I knew kids learn through play—after all, that’s pretty much what preschoolers do all day—but it looked to me as if they were simply imitating what they saw adults doing, often turning recent experiences into play. When I was a child and my whole family got very ill with mumps, all my dolls ended up in Tinker Toy “hospital beds.” Little did I know that as I grated a wine cork into what I called “body crumbs” (creating my own medicine!), I was also developing my fine motor skills.
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Play is way more than play. It is, as my kids’ preschool teachers always emphasized, children’s work. Their preschool, Akiba-Schechter, has always offered a play-based curriculum, but not until their recent “Power of Play” project did I fully understand how essential play is to children’s development, and how much learning and physical development is accomplished through seemingly simple play activities. For example, playing with Lego isn’t just playing with Lego. It also develops fine motor skills, math and cooperative learning. Children might decide to build a Lego city and need to figure out what it will look like, who will live there and what will happen there. When two children decide to build a bunk bed in the block corner, they are cooperating. They also need to take turns, listen to one another and be considerate and open to other ideas.
The same goes for cooking: so much is involved in messing around in the kitchen, and here I thought it was mainly about the end product and having a fun time. Turns out cooking with kids fosters their social and emotional development as they share, take turns and follow directions. It requires them to reason and problem solve. As kids use measuring spoons, count scoops, follow a recipe’s order and sort ingredients, they learn about one-on-one correspondence, sequential order, spatial relationships, and explore the measurements of objects and quantities. These are pre-math skills.
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Cooking also lays the foundation for literacy. Kids need to read labels on ingredients, decipher recipes, look through cookbooks and write down their own recipes. Stirring, pinching, scooping, kneading, and cutting develops their fine motor skills. Cooking introduces kids to science as they plan and carry out simple investigations such as combining liquids and solids and later when they discuss what they investigated. While it might be a messy proposition to have them create their own cookies, think about all the skills they are developing!
Play develops life skills. So, the next time your child comes home and answers “play” to your question what she did in preschool all day, appreciate this crucial time of development that helps children be successful in life.