Often we say this to our children when we are in need of a few minutes to get something done, or a few quiet moments to collect ourselves so we can move onto the next thing that needs to be done. Play, however, is something much more important and essential to the healthy development of children that most parents are unaware of and un-schooled.
The value of play in early childhood development is closely related to the skills of a child's learning self-regulation, a executive function of the brain. Self-regulation helps one learn impulse control as well as appropriate and connective expression. Self regulation helps one learn to intiative and to persist in an activity as well as when to set an activity aside. Self-regulation helps one learn to focus and pay attention. Self-regulation is an important skill for the successful learner.
In the report "From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development", (2000) Shonkoff and Phillips define self-regulation, also known as executive function, as a child's ability to gain control of bodily functions, manage powerful emotions, and maintain focus and attention. This is a necessary skill in order to be successful at school and is often discussed as more important than IQ. Self-regulation would be associated with EQ or a child's developing emotional intelligence. Self-regulation is also essential to successful social interactions.
The growth of self-regulation is a cornerstone of early childhood development and is visible in all areas of behavior. When children learn to rely on themselves for playtime — improvising props, making up games and stories, building with blocks, focusing on coloring or drawing — they are actually developing self-regulation. Essentially, executive function is the ability to regulate one's own behavior — a key skill for controlling emotions, resisting impulses and exerting self-control and discipline.
In early childhood settings, self-regulation is often considered when looking at social-emotional growth in preschoolers. It used to be assumed that children, if given time, would become self-regulated without intervention or support. But current thinking and research shows that teachers, parents, and other adult caregivers are important in helping very young children to modulate their emotions and their reactions or responsive decisions. For example, soothing babies and then over time helping babies learn to soothe themselves.
In the preschool years, teachers and parents help children develop self-regulation by using high-level dramatic play to engender learning higher vocabulary, thinking, and decision making, thus helping children learn to express their emotions, and engaging children in planning and decision making. Children can be prompted to consider their emotions by adults asking, "tell me how that might make you feel" "What does that emotion make you want to do?" or suggesting that children use their words and helping that learn and use new words when describing emotions and emotional responses.
As a parent and as teachers, we can help children to:
* persist when frustrated—have patience and offer suggestions to problems
* play cooperatively with other children
* use language to communicate needs---words not hands
* learn turn taking---model turn taking if this is still hard
* gain control of physical impulses
* express negative emotions that is outwardly expressive and not destructive
* use problem-solving techniques—'What else could we do?'
* notice the connection to emotions and facial or bodily expressions
So, next time you suggest to your child to go play, go with them. Observe. See what they are playing, what they gravitate to, what their patterns are in communication, conflict resolution, if they are a follower or a leader or good at both, if they prefer solitary interaction or group interaction or both, see what you can start to learn by watching.
As the parent of a young child who has many years of schooling ahead, I also suggest learning more about play and its connections to creativity, mental healthy, and successful learning:
NPR Creative Play Makes Kids in Control
Focus on Self-Regulation - MSCD
"Taking Play Seriously" New York Times February 17, 2008
The Power of Play by David Elkind
MIT's Lifelong Kindergarten
Stuart Brown at TED re: Why Play is Vital