This childcare is unlike any other childcare that I have seen. Their curriculum structures around  a play-based one and children learns academics at a slower pace. Worried parents have enquired if they are making the right choice of enrolling their child in this school as they are afraid that they are unable to catch up to others in competitive Singapore. “If they are so slow, how are they able to maximise the child’s potential in learning?”

The word ‘Potential’ is a highly dangerous word. When a parent believes that their child has ‘potential’, their first instinct is to cramp as much enrichment and academics down the child’s throat to ensure that they maximise their fullest ‘potential’. Yet what happens if one is to take a step back and provide structured play instead? Will the child still benefit as much?

But do play really benefit learning? How do they do it? Are there evidence?

Play improves memory, stimulates the Growth of the Cerebral Cortex and BNDF

Although this experiment was conducted on rats, it did raise some interesting insights. When neuroscientists separated two groups of rats and placed them either in solitary confinement or exciting, toy-filled colonies, they found that rats which were placed in the latter environment had thicker cerebral cortices than did the former group (Diamond et al 1964). The results were confirmed when they replicated the experiment. Bonus: they were able to find their way out of mazes quicker as well. (Greenough and Black 1992)

When rats were allowed to explore, they found that their brains also showed an increase in brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BNDF) (Gordon et al 2003).  BDNF is essential for the growth and maintenance of brain cells.

Kids pay more attention to Academic Tasks when they are given Frequent and Brief Opportunities for Free Play

When children are given time to play without directions from adults and be truly playful for 10 to 20 minutes, they come back more refreshed and pay more attention to academic tasks. Recesses that are more than 20 minutes may have the opposite effect instead.

While exercise is known to provide cognitive benefits, structured physical education classes are not effective substitutes for free playtime (Bjorkland and Pellegrini 2000).

Playdates Improve Language 

When scientists studied a group of British children aged 1-6, they found that children, who were able to substitute a teddy bear for an absent object, scored higher for language skills – both receptive language (what a child understands) and expressive language (the words she speaks). These results remained significant even after controlling for the age of the child.

When psychologist Edward Fisher investigated 46 published studies of cognitive play, he discovered that children who play and pretend together (sociodramatic play), tend to show improved performances  both cognitive-linguistic (language) and social affective (emotions) domains.

Promotes Creative Problem Solving

In life, sometimes it is not about getting that 1 correct solution for a single problem; it is able to find out different solutions for a single problem. Psychologists distinguish two types of problem–convergent and divergent. A convergent problem has a single correct solution or answer. A divergent problem yields itself to multiple solutions.

Research found that when children were given blocks (e.g. Lego) instead of puzzle pieces, they were able to perform better on divergent problems and showed more creativity in their attempts to solve the problems (Pepler and Ross 1981). Interestingly, it seemed to show that children who were trained to solve divergent problems showed increased rates of pretend play and vice versa.

Pretend Play Regulates Emotions

When your child indulges in pretend-play, their ability to self-regulate (impulses, emotions, attention) and reason increases.

When children pretend play together frequently, they must conform to a set of rules, and practice conforming to such rules might help kids develop better self-control over time. These frequent interactions also provide with valuable opportunities to improve their reasoning  for “What-if” scenarios and make inferences about events that have not actually occurred.

Block Play Predicts Your Child’s Math Ability

When scientists tracked the complexity of children’s block play at age 4 and then tracked their academic performance through high school (Wolfgang, Stannard, & Jones, 2001), they found that the more complex their blocks were used as preschoolers, the better their math grades were. The results were maintained even after they discounted the children’s intelligence.

Playful experiences are learning experiences

Finally, lest anybody doubt that kids learn through play, we should keep in mind the following points.

1. Most play involves exploration, and exploration is, by definition, an act of investigation.

When children play, they are often testing out something in that process – be it controlling of emotions during pretend play or just even testing out their own hypothesis which they form while testing out the structure of blocks or magnets.

2. Play is self-motivated and fun.

When true learning takes place, it occurs when one is having fun. If we are learning and it is perceived as a chore or duty, we are not able to be fully and happily immense in the quench for knowledge.

3. An Outlet to cope with Real Life Challenges.

Children often make use of knowledge of what they learn and apply them into real life. Children as young as 3 are able to make distinctions between realistic and fanciful pretending, and use information learned from realistic pretend scenarios to understand the real world (Sutherland and Friedman 2012; 2013).

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