Play is the main way children learn and make sense of the world around them. It helps develop their cognitive, physical, and social‑emotional well‑being while also providing meaningful opportunities to engage with their parents and caregivers. Play is more powerful for children than parents and educators realize. It is actually the key to learning. Researchers have found that play enriches learning and develops critical inquiry, expression, experimentation, and teamwork skills. Like typically developing kids, children with autism love to learn through play. When you actively help them to play and explore their environment, you help them learn and master new abilities.
Play and Early Brain Development
Play is essential for early childhood development because it helps shape experiences with other people and the environment. During the early years of development, learning experiences and nurturing relationships promote strong neural pathways in the brain to help a child make sense of, process, and retain new information. These connections are created and triggered by responsive and playful caregiving in loving and safe environments.
What is Meaningful Play?
Through meaningful play, children are active participants. For example, instead of passively sitting during a lesson, children take on roles alongside their peers and respond to other children according to the rules of play they have created. The five characteristics of meaningful play include:
- The child has a choice about what they want to do
- It feels fun and enjoyable for the child
- Evolves spontaneously, rather than following a script
- The child is driven by intrinsic motivation about what they want
- Creates a risk-free environment so children can experiment and try new ideas.
How Do Children Learn Through Play?
For young children, play is often a full-body experience that helps them develop skills they will need later in life. Activities such as running, dancing, climbing, and rolling foster muscle development and help fine-tune motor skills. This is especially helpful for children on the autism spectrum, who may have trouble with their gross or fine motor skills. Children also build their mental and emotional skills as they make creative, imaginative worlds with a system of rules governing the terms of play.
The Importance of Play in the Classroom
In a classroom setting, play also helps children learn and grow. Teachers can guide instruction loosely and playfully to encourage children to make connections to the wider world through their own body of knowledge. Students learn critical thinking skills, improve their language skills, expand their range of expertise and increase their social-emotional awareness; all without realizing how much they’re learning.
The Connections Therapy Center
The Connections Therapy Center serves families of children and adolescents with disabilities and special needs. We are a team of experts in the fields of pediatric speech, occupational therapy, speech-language pathology, and behavioral sciences. As a team, we offer intensive hands-on therapy for children and adolescents, as well as informative and useful resources for families. If you are interested in learning more about what we can do to help your family, visit us online or give us a call at (301) 577-4333. Want to get more information on how to help your child thrive? Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, and Pinterest.