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There’s a lot of pressure right now for preschool kids to learn academic stuff. This pushes traditional play activities into the background but that’s a mistake. It’s important for parents to stick up for their children’s right to play without any sort of obvious goal. Here’s why…

What very small children learn through “just play”

They learn how a ball works, what makes a noise and what doesn’t. They are learning about things. How they work, how they feel and taste and sound and smell. How they look from different angles.

They are also learning about people. What family members like, what they don’t like. What other kids do if you hit them. What their faces look like just before something new happens. What people say and what their words mean.

And, they are learning about themselves. They’re learning how their bodies move and how to work them. They’re learning how they feel when different things happen and how to identify and name those feelings. They’re learning what they can do easily and what’s difficult. They are learning how to try things and figure things out.

There’s a lot of really basic information little kids have to soak up in the first few years of life.  It’s tempting to overlook all this and think it’s not important. But these are essential building blocks of the more complex learning that’s coming. Before kids can learn to read, they have to know how books work – that there’s a front and a back and pages in between. Everything you can think of is like this: built on basic learning that happens when children are very, very small.

How very small children learn…

These sorts of essential, basic understandings are learned by living.  Nobody actually sits down and teaches kids this stuff in any sort of academic way.  Sure, we might read to our kids or show them how to build a block tower and knock it down again… but we do this with them, not to them. We’re showing them things we think they might enjoy.

And some things children can only learn on their own, like how to draw with a crayon or climb up an obstacle. They can only learn some things by experience. Because these things are learned by living, it’s important to give children lots of living time.

What small children need to have in order to learn

There is nothing to buy. You can buy things, of course. But no toy is vital and no toy can do the learning for your child or can teach her things all on its own. No matter what anybody says or what you hear in any advertisement, there is no toy or gizmo you must buy for your child.

What children do need are things to pick up and carry around, stack on top of each other, and hide inside. They need things that are safe to play with – no small parts, no lead paint, no sharp edges – but just about anything around the house can qualify as a good toy – and as a learning tool.

Blocks. Empty boxes. Stuffed toys. Cars. Dolls. Balls. Board books. Kids can learn just about everything they need to know from these simple toys. Water. Sand. Things to climb onto. Things to climb into. Things to stand behind and push. These provide important learning opportunities too. To become very, very smart, kids need very, very little.

Then, children need time to play and freedom to explore. There is no right way to do things. Nothing is forbidden, except, of course, hurting people or pets and deliberately destroying things. Small children want to know “what can I do with this?” “What will happen if I drop it?” “Will it roll or stack or slide?” It’s important to let them find out.

Your role in your small child’s learning

You do have a role, an important role. Here are six ways you get involved in teaching your child through play.

Play alongside. Get down on the floor or get out in the yard with your child. There’s no need to do anything special, just enjoy the activity on its own terms. You may certainly point out a cool thing you discover, but be careful to not insist your child learn how to do what you’re doing. She is learning her own stuff.

Show new ideas. After a toy has been around for a while you might try playing with it in a new way. Demonstrate that there’s more than just one way to do anything. And watch your child as well. He may come up with a nifty new idea that you haven’t thought of.

Talk about the play. When you talk about the play, explaining things or remarking on how something happened, your child learns a couple different things. She learns some new words. She learns concepts like “on,” “under,” “after,” “beside.” And she learns that what happens in the play can be described in a first-next-last sort of way. All this develops your child’s thinking ability and her literacy skills. Talking about the play is one of the most important things you can do.

Ask questions. Ask, “what do you think will happen if we push it this way?” Ask, “what happened there? I didn’t see it.” Ask questions and let your child tell you. He will have to find the right words to describe things and put words in the right order to make sense. He will have to take into account what you know and what you couldn’t know that he has to tell you. Again, language skills and cognitive skills are built this way.

Embrace the mess. There may be mess. Playing in sand gets sand in the house. Water spills and gets all over kids’ shirts. Toys get scattered. Do not forbid your child to play because you’re worried about the mess it might make. Factor in the time it will take to put things away and find spaces for play that can survive the sorts of messes children make. Keeping things neat and clean doesn’t do much for your child’s development.

Be sure of your ground.

With all the pressure on academics, your friends and family may not understand the value of free play. But you do. You know that preschoolers don’t really need lessons or flash cards and workbooks. Time devoted to those sorts of things is time taken away from what is really important to the preschool child: messing about with real stuff and talking about it.

Let your child grow and explore in unscripted ways. That’s how you create a true smarty.