Renowned physician and educator Maria Montessori said: “Play is the work of the child.” Indeed, play is central to your child’s physical, cognitive, language, sensory, social and emotional development. But is there a right way to play? Should you sign your baby up for classes, or stay home and follow his lead while he explores and chooses what to play with and how?
The answer is both.
Music class, parent and child yoga, and demonstrating how to paint or play a game are all examples of structured play. Unstructured play, on the other hand, encompasses any activity where children direct their own play. Both have important benefits, so the key is striking a balance between the two.
The Benefits of Structured Play
Here at BabySparks we know the value of structured play; we built an entire program around it! We know that our parent-led, interactive activities not only support your little one’s development, but also promote back-and-forth between you that literally shapes his brain.
Structured activities like ours, tot gym classes and the like have clear benefits, including:
- Introducing your child to new things. Structured play allows you to expose your little one to a variety of activities that he may not discover on his own.
- Building strength, balance, and coordination. Initiating movement games with your child helps him learn and master gross motor skills, as well as stay active.
- Teaching skills. Any skill you can think of can be taught during structured play (holding a crayon, building with blocks, playing a drum, throwing a ball, etc.)
- Teaching language, including vocabulary, grammar, following directions, and sequencing.
- Promoting social and emotional skills like turn-taking, setting and respecting boundaries, and self-regulation.
The Benefits of Unstructured Play
Child-led free play has other benefits, including helping your little one:
- Take creative risks. Structured play tends to revolve around rules that children must follow if the activity is to be successful. During unstructured play, your little one is free to experiment and try different things.
- Learn to problem-solve. Free play presents children with unique opportunities to encounter and solve problems.
- Use executive functioning. Although structured play also hones these cognitive skills (which we use for things like planning and executing goals, switching back and forth between tasks, and controlling impulses), free play involves continuous use of executive functioning.
- Engage in symbolic play which, among other benefits, encourages use of imagination and supports social and emotional development.
- Develop a sense of agency. During free play children are in control, which helps them develop independence and self-reliance.
- Navigate social interaction. While structured play teaches your child social rules, unstructured play gives him opportunities to observe, respond, and adapt in ever-changing social situations. This becomes increasingly important as he begins to play with other children and challenges such as sharing, collaborating, and working out disagreements arise.
Should you free-play with your child, or allow him to play alone? Again, the answer is both. Playing solo not only helps him develop independence, he may also take more creative risks because when children play with parents they may be concerned with doing things the “right way.” Free play with you, on the other hand, supports bonding, brain development, and acquisition of language, social and emotional skills. To maximize learning while you’re free-playing with him, follow his lead, focus on what he’s focused on, and engage in meaningful back-and-forth with words, facial expressions and gestures.
Lastly, keep in mind that screen time interferes with the rich, full-body, and interactive play that is essential to your little one’s development, especially during these first few years of his life.