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Back to Basics: Why Play Is Crucial in the Early Childhood Years

By Reed Rhodes
Back to Basics:  Why Play Is Crucial in the Early Childhood Years

The early childhood years are a critical learning time for children with “many cognitive, emotional, physical, and social tasks to accomplish,” according to Grossman (2014). However, Bodrova and Leong (2007) suggest that there is often pressure to turn early childhood classrooms into “scaled-down first-grade classrooms with worksheets and drills.” This is not in the child’s best interest, because it does not provide the underlying skills of self-regulation that make future academic learning more effective and efficient. When children develop self-regulation skills, they are able to learn cognitive skills and concepts effectively and are prepared for their next stage of development.
In the labs of Walter Mischel in the late 1960s, children were brought one at a time into a room where a single cookie or marshmallow sat on a plate in front of them. An experimenter told the children that they could eat that one treat immediately but if they waited until the experimenter returned from a brief errand they could have two treats.
As you might expect, many children ate the one treat immediately. What is most interesting is that the children who resisted temptation at 5 years of age scored 210 points higher on the Scholastic Aptitude Test when they were in high school. In fact, impulse control is a better predictor of academic achievement than IQ and provides the foundation for a suite of behaviors known as self-regulation. These skills include planning and prioritizing, organizing, working memory, shifting attention, and self-monitoring. Without these skills it is very difficult to function successfully and be productive in school and later on in life.
Self-regulation is an umbrella term for a collection of skills that includes the ability to control your impulses, focus your attention, hold and work with information in your mind, filter out distractions, shift from one task to another, and monitor how well you are doing. Self-regulation has been described as an air traffic control system at a busy airport that manages the arrivals and departures of numerous planes on multiple runways.
When children are self-regulated they are able to delay gratification and control their impulses long enough to ponder the consequences of their actions or to consider alternative, more appropriate actions. So what does impulse control and self-regulation have to do with play? As it turns out, play in the early childhood years lays the groundwork for academic learning in the elementary grades by helping children to develop self-regulation. Children who learn how to control their impulses and regulate their behavior through play demonstrate better learning in later years because their brains can perform tasks that are necessary to think, act, and solve problems.
Not all play is alike. A special kind called mature dramatic play (MDP) produces the most benefits for a child. This advanced, open-ended play occurs when children engage in make-believe scenarios using props and dialogue. It has characteristics that distinguish it from other types of less advanced play. First, children use both objects and actions symbolically to represent other objects and actions. Symbolic reasoning is a uniquely human trait that helped our species to survive and thrive in our evolutionary history. Second, language is used to create a pretend plot and to indicate what props represent and how they will be used. Third, the play has multiple themes that are interwoven. Fourth, the children assume various integrated roles. Lastly, the time frame for play is extended so that children can continue their play for longer time periods and over successive days.
According to Grossman (2014), the ultimate goal for children in the early childhood years is “to learn important knowledge, skills, and attitudes that will help them be successful in school and later life.” One of the most important skills to learn is self-regulation. During this period, the most developmentally appropriate way for your child to practice self-regulatory behavior is to engage in MDP.
Meltzer (2010) writes that children who learn how to plan a make-believe scenario, maintain a role, use real or symbolic props, and help their peers are learning self-regulation, which is “critically important for all aspects of academic performance.” Self-regulation skills allow you to live, work, and learn with a level of independence and proficiency appropriate for your age. Acquiring the early building blocks of self-regulation is one of the most important and challenging tasks of the early childhood years.

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