It could be something as simple as using a sheet to make a fort or building a tower with wooden blocks, but research shows that play time is critical for children.
Barbara Eaton, academic development adviser for the pre-primary schools division at education provider AdvTECH, said before they go to school, good old-fashioned play is critical not only for children’s brains but to boost their social and cognitive skills too.
According to Eaton, research by Sergio Pellis from the University of Lethbridge in Canada showed that the experience of play changed the connections of the neurons in the pre-frontal section of a child’s brain, and that without play those neurons remained unchanged.
Added to this research is work by Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who found that children are able to rise above their average behaviour through play.
“Far less is gained when little children have full schedules of structured activities, from basic maths classes to early reading, gymnastics, kiddy music and soccer,” Eaton said.
“When it comes to brain development, time spent in the classroom and at other structured activities is less important than time on the playground. Pellis found that it was those changes in the prefrontal cortex during childhood that helped wire up the brain’s executive control centre, which has a critical role in regulating emotions, making plans and solving problems. In other words, play prepares a young brain for life, love and even schoolwork.”
Dr Catherine Draper, who works at the University of Cape Town’s division of exercise science and sports medicine agreed, saying research conducted within South Africa’s low income communities revealed that playing led to better gross motor skills associated with cognitive development.
Depending on the age group of the children, Draper said they need a balance of structured activities such as games led by either a teacher or an adult and unstructured activities such as free play.
“Activities outside are the ones most strongly associated with more physical activity. If they are older, then definitely after school sports and activity-based holiday clubs are good options, but definitely not an afternoon playing games at an arcade,” Draper said.
Only certain toys, such as those which encourage imaginative play, can be beneficial.
“Our research has found that preschool children in low-income urban and rural communities are very active without lots of toys or play equipment. But children shouldn’t have to be dependent on toys to play. Being outside is optimal and there are plenty of stimulating things outside that don’t have to include toys,” Draper said, while Eaten urged parents to get things back to basics as beneficial play is the kind which requires creativity, imagination and problem-solving.
“Provide the child with a good set of plain wooden bricks, a few non-battery-operated cars, a soft doll or two, a teddy, some plastic plates and cups and a big ball,” she said.
Draper warned against children spending too much time either interacting with their phones, tablets or playing video games.