I’ve read a lot this summer about the so-called “brain drain” that happens when kids aren’t engaged in learning, and I’ve talked to parents who believe it’s occurring with their kids. Personally, I never experienced it because both my parents were teachers, and our summers though filled with play were also, as I see it now, filled with learning. My mom especially kept coming up with projects that kept us engaged and learning—when we weren’t outside riding bikes or playing pick up games. In a few weeks family lives will be more structured around specific school activities, but that’s no reason that the fun or learning should stop.
Play is particularly important for kids in the elementary and middle school grades as it can help reinforce basic thinking skills, while not feeling like work. While it can be important to practice phonics and numbers, and there are plenty of good toys, software programs and online tools that help do that, we’ve always advocated creating a “balanced toy box” for your kids. Here are some things you’ll want to include, and some of the skills they help build.
Games—In addition to fostering social interaction—including being a gracious winner or loser—an understanding of randomness and chance, different kinds of games can reinforce skills like planning, strategic thinking, memory, understanding spatial relationships and predicting outcomes. We particularly like memory games that help build retention skills and simple strategy games that challenge kids to play out various actions and consequences in their imaginations. These are real world skills interpreted for younger kids. When choosing games, though, fun is of the utmost importance because if it’s not fun, kids won’t want to play again—and it’s in the repetition that learning is reinforced.
Construction Toys & Arts and Crafts—While these are distinct categories in the toy aisles, from a skill building perspective, they serve similar needs. Primarily, they require kids to use their imaginations to see things in their minds’ eyes before they make them real either in building or creating. This is an important skill that will help with both math and language ability.
Narrative Play—Everything from action figures to dolls falls under this category. This play is all about making up stories, trying on different identities (through projection onto the plaything) and self-expression. It doesn’t matter if the child is playing with a Barbie doll or a Transformers figure, the benefit is that the imagination is engaged, and that’s a key component of problem-solving.
Physical Play—The Latin expression mens sana in corpore sano has never been truer—a healthy mind in a healthy body. Physically active play helps kids get or stay fit and aids in concentration. Colloquially, we talk about kids’ need to “blow off steam,” and that’s really true. A child who sits all day needs to have active time. We are after all physical creatures, and I talk with teacher after teacher who tells me that when kids get active play, they are calmer and more attentive, particularly in the afternoon.
And this is just the beginning.
The one concept I always try to avoid, however, is the expression many marketers use: “Kids won’t even know they’re learning.” I find that very frustrating. It assumes a kind of macro perspective that doesn’t apply in the adult world. Do we as adults ever really know that we’re learning. Perhaps when we focus on trying to learn a skill we do, but I vastly prefer thinking about engagement in and outcomes of the task at hand for kids. In play, the learning is a byproduct, not the goal itself. That’s why healthy play complements school work and offers kids chances to have new experiences, explore their physical and imaginative worlds and express themselves. It’s also part of making them unique and well-rounded individuals.
And that’s an outcome we want for every kid.