To many adults, toddlers or pre-K children playing with building blocks are doing nothing more than playing with building blocks. Yet, as those kids stacks those blocks on top of each other, they are doing more than just playing; they are developing new skills, exploring new experiences and assimilating new content.
In other words, they are learning.
Playing enhances critical thinking
How does that work? Well, any type of play involves elements of critical thinking, problem-solving, and creativity. Let's go back to our block-builders for a second: when children encounter a pile of blocks, they will often study them and try to understand what they are and what they are supposed to do. Kids will experiment – what happens if they place this block on top of that block?
Or if they put that block right here instead. And as they feels more confident, they will start trying new things, such as building a super tall stack, or creating a shape.
Thirty years from now, when those toddlers are successful business executives, they will use those same skills in their work environment: analyze any "mess" to understand what it is, and what they want it to do. They will experiment – what happens if they try this? Or that? And as they feel more confident, they will start developing new ideas and trying even more creative approaches.
All of that from playing with building blocks.
Make-believe enhances critical too
Imagine what the make-believe worlds many children inhabit are doing for their cognitive abilities.
Actually, you do not have to imagine it, because research coming out of the University of California, Berkeley is demonstrating that playtime is vital for children in developing their critical thinking and problem solving skills; in essence, "children at play are like pint-sized scientists testing theories," Alison Gopnik, a cognitive development researcher at UC Berkeley writes in a 2012 article for Smithsonian Magazine. They are considering possibilities, exploring options, and answering questions.
And being creative to boot. Because there is no doubt the elaborate make-believe worlds children thrive in are phenomenal in their creativity. How many of us have heard about fire-breathing dragons that live in a beautiful castle in the woods and love chocolate chip cookies? Or a superhero that drives a helicopter – that can go all the way to outer space! – and brings down his enemies by shooting them with a laser gun?
A child's imagination, when allowed to roam, is another pathway to problem solving, and for the aspiring leaders in the arts, humanities, and social sciences worlds, a pathway to their creative success.
Playing improves math, language and emotional intelligence
But that is not all. No, in playtime, children are also trying their hands at math, language arts, and even emotional intelligence. Math? Really? Yes, children at play are practicing basic math principles like counting, addition, subtraction, and division – sharing toys with friends is an involved process for kids at play. Children divide toys equally to ensure fairness, and they grasp the mathematical concept of toys coming and going.
Furthermore, children may not be able to articulate the counting out loud, but they are aware of increases and decreases in numbers around them (i.e., they can tell when a block is missing or when there are too many blocks in a set).
As for language arts, make-believe universes encourage children to describe the surroundings and circumstances to their peers (and interested adults), which helps them improve their vocabularies and grammar.
And emotional intelligence. Playtime introduces children to the concepts of sharing, cooperation, and other social interaction. They become aware of important life lessons like compromise, collaborative problem solving, and teamwork. Lastly, playtime introduces them to a wider world. They begin to navigate beyond the confines of their own individual universe, and understand there is more to their lives.
It is not just a fort made of blocks
So, to those many adults out there that think toddlers are just playing when they are building a fort out of blocks, think again. Everything from science to math to art is happening in that moment, and having the opportunity to build that fort is going to affect that child's life for the rest of it.
Let the Children Play, It's Good for Them!
Published in Smithsonian Magazine, July 2012
It's Elementary: Playtime Equals Learning Time for Young Children
Published on remake learning, April 2015
The Need for Pretend Play in Child Development
Jerome L. Singer and Dorothy G. Singer
Published in Scientific American, November 2013