3 Key Ingredients to Homeschooling a Young Child: Play

Part 1

“I am struck by the fact that the more slowly trees grow at first, the sounder they are at the core, and I think that the same is true of human beings. We do not wish to see children precocious, making great strides in their early years like sprouts, producing a soft and perishable timber, but better if they expand slowly at first, as if contending with difficulties, and so are solidified and perfected. Such trees continue to expand with nearly equal rapidity to extreme old age”

– Henry David Thoreau

Precious early years… the years of joy and playfulness which seem to pass away so quickly. The child is busy, full of energy, seemingly interested in anything and everything around him. The well-meaning parents are busy too. They are thinking hard and wondering, “How can we give this child a strong foundation?” When we start something new, there is this excitement of wanting to do everything right but unfortunately, in our overzealousness, we often end up harming more than benefiting.

The other extreme is not doing anything at all and taking a very passive role because, “What can you possibly do with a young child?” Not being intentional about the choices in their environment can also be harmful. These two extremes are very common and they tend to frequently plague new homeschoolers. I must admit that I have been no exception. It’s only with time, experience, and knowledge that I learned. I am still learning.

But here is the good news! There are some really simple things that can enrich the early home education experience and help your child develop to his full potential. And yes there is a very important role to be played by the parent. Let’s look at the basics which will hopefully help you prioritize and get the right energy in your homeschool. On my rough days, I remind myself of these very basics and strive for it even when everything else seems to be falling apart. It’s like a framework on which everything else rests and I build up from there. Sometimes we are soaring, and sometimes we are literally at the surface. But it’s alright. As long as the basics are right, you cannot possibly take away the many advantages of home education. So what are these key ingredients? In this article we will cover the first one.

 

Play

Children need the time and space to play both in the house and out in the open. It’s not optional. We cannot skip the play to replace it with something better. There is possibly nothing better for them than to just play. It’s so unfortunate that as a culture, we have drifted away from natural play. It has been replaced by structured lessons both indoors and outdoors, video games, and TV time. When a child plays physically using movement, it is actually developing his brain. The left and the right hemispheres become integrated as he experiences rich interactions with his environment and all of this happens best through play. In other words, playing literally grows his brain! However, it is important to distinguish between structured and unstructured physical play. Physical play does not necessarily mean soccer classes, karate classes, or any structured sports programs which last for very little time. I misunderstood this for quite sometime too. The physical play that is meant here is usually unstructured or has very little structure, and should last for much longer than the regular sports programs do.

Play also helps develop emotional intelligence. Children need to make sense of the world around them. When they play, they are trying to make sense of everything. This play time for themselves, without the adults telling them what to do, is absolutely essential. I have experienced this with my boys. They tend to be calmer and more well-behaved when they get adequate playtime. This is also found in many books on discipline and behavior management. We need to have free blocks of time throughout the day so the kids can play.

Imaginative play boosts creativity and also builds concentration. It’s the only time when a child feels in control of the situation. A child gets to make decisions and follow them through according to the limits they themselves set. When they engage in pretend play, they are essentially rehearsing something. Listen to it and you will understand. It’s usually related to an event that happened recently or they could be playing the roles of ‘mom’, ‘dad’ , ‘policeman’ etc. In essence, they are recreating the world as they see it. Only this time, they are the ones in control, so they are “playing” out the roles in their own way. Sometimes certain situations will be played over and over again until they are able to make sense of it. In this kind of role play, a lot of important things are happening. The children define the parameters, set the rules, decide the limits, decide the roles and learn to stay within those roles during the play as well as switch between tasks and roles. This is how they rehearse to become like us adults.

As you can see, this is very important work in a child’s life as it contributes greatly to the development of executive functions. According to an article I had read years ago, executive functions are more important than IQ or EQ for future success. They comprise of a set of cognitive skills that help us stay on task and control our behaviors for the attainment of our goals. Executive functions include basic cognitive processes such as attentional control, cognitive inhibition, inhibitory control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility. In simple words, it’s self regulation. It’s something that develops during childhood. We are either facilitating it or standing in the way. Harvard University’s ‘Center On The Developing Child’ has done a lot of research on this and they were extensively referenced in the aforementioned article.

Now that the importance of play has been established, the next question is, “How do we facilitate this kind of beneficial play?” Choose unstructured play over structured play. You do not need to plan elaborate playdates or do anything complicated. Play is natural. You just need to keep free blocks of time. Choose toys wisely. It’s better to have fewer toys which can be used in multiple ways than have the latest gadget which keeps adding up and ends up only teaching them disrespect and entitlement. Some of the best toys are sandboxes, water tables, block sets of different sizes and made of different materials, handmade toys, collection of sensory toys made with natural materials, classic building sets , lots of blankets or scarfs to build forts with, pretend play, and the list can keep going. For outside company, just go to a playground. It provides plenty of opportunities to socialize as well. It’s better for them to be outdoors and play with dirt as much as possible. Charlotte Mason emphasized outdoor time and said,

“Do not be indoors if you can be outdoors.”

Children learn risk-taking when they experiment in physical play which will help them with decision-making in the future. When we look at any successful person’s life, we usually see a moment in their life where they took a risk. When a child hangs off the monkey bars for the first time, he is taking a risk. A child needs to experience this kind of risk-taking and feel the joy of overcoming an obstacle. We don’t want our children to be overtaken by timidity and the best way to avert this is to give them small opportunities while they are young. You see, everything is a rehearsal for the future. This innate need in children is part of a special plan. We need to find an outlet for these in appropriate settings.

It’s unfortunate that we emphasize reading programs and other academic work when they are so young instead of focusing on play which will truly help the right and left hemispheres of the brain work in coordination for future reading/academic success. Many experts believe that ‘true reading’ does not happen until both sides of the brain are used. For some kids this happens quite late. This is crucial for us to understand. At one point in my journey, I made a conscious decision to not compromise on this no matter what and I have reaped the benefits of it ever since. In summary, when a child is playing, he/she is getting physically and mentally strong, developing concentration, refining his/her senses, rehearsing in different ways for the future adult life, and also learning to be creative by using his/her imagination. So let them play and enjoy these joy-filled moments because they will not last for very long.

Play is the work of childhood.” – Jean Piaget

Play is the highest form of research.” – Albert Einstein

It is a happy talent to know how to play.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Play gives children a chance to practice what they are learning.” – Mr. Rogers

 

Click here to read PART 2.

 

Noor is an Electronics Engineer turned Homeschool Mom of two boys. She is enjoying every moment of her role as a stay-at-home mother/home educator for the past 6 years. She argues that her children are teaching her far more than her years of education and work experience ever did. Having had a successful career in Information Technology, she abandoned it to pursue her children’s education. She loves to learn and apply the best of different educational philosophies/methodologies. Charlotte Mason, Maria Montessori, and John Holt have greatly influenced her homeschooling style. She firmly believes in simplifying education and following the child. More of this can be found on her blog www.simplifyHomeschool.com

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