Let those wee tackers play and they’ll reap more than just the benefits of fun and games. Play can help children’s development in a whole stack of ways. Let the games begin!
I’m always up for a laugh and enjoy nothing more than rap-dancing or singing out-loud to the Frozen soundtrack with my son, Maxwell, but some play scenarios are just not my strength. Like building LEGO for example. I only have to look at a LEGO construction and it crumbles. Maxwell, on the other hand, has been building masterpieces since day dot. Sound effects are another weakness of mine. My crack at explosions while playing battle scenes with him are, well, laughable.
But children use a whole range of different types of play to develop their social, emotional, physical and creative skills. And more importantly, to understand the world around them. That’s why playgroups can be so highly beneficial.
Playgroup NSW CEO Karen Bevan has more than 25 years’ experience working in child and family social policy and early childhood, and not surprisingly, is a pro’ when it comes to explaining all the benefits playgroups have for both kids, and parents. “Playgroups allow parents to introduce their children to a whole range of activities they may not do at home,” she says. “It’s also a safe way for parents to allow their children to engage socially with other people and try new things, and the parents can broaden their social network, meeting other parents with children in the same age group.”
Here, Karen explains five ways your child can benefit from joining a playgroup.
Let’s Chat, Play & Get Social!
Social skills are not a given. You may have a social butterfly on your hands or a little reserved soul who’s happier playing on their own, and both are perfectly fine. “Every child is different and will develop social skills in their own time,” explains Karen. “Playgroup is really all about following the lead of the child.”
This means allowing children to develop their social skills at their own pace. So let them dip their tiny toes into the social pool. As a gauge for social development, Karen says from age one to three kids undergo massive brain and other developments, and will gradually start to engage with other children. “You’ll often see two-year-olds’ intensely engaging in parallel play too,” she says. “From age three to five the true interaction between children starts, and they engage with each other more directly. Playgroups allow them to engage briefly with other children their age, and experience what happens when they do, as well as learning social boundaries.”
Becoming Emotionally Equipped
Whether your child is attached at the hip or off and running with the big kids, building a child’s emotional confidence and independence all starts at home. “All the research suggests that the best thing for developing children is to have a great relationship with their primary caregivers, whether that’s the parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles or other carers,” explains Karen. “This sets them up with a great sense of attachment and stability. One of the benefits of playgroup is that carers attend with children. Emotionally, this brings the child and carer together for a shared experience, strengthening their bond. It also allows children to safely test out separation from their carer. Children can visit the craft table, for example, while knowing that grandma is close by having a cup of tea or a chat. This is really important for building confidence in children, allowing for separation and developing independence from a young age.”
And as much as we’d love to be there to wipe away the tears and kiss our little ones every time they encounter a challenging situation, we won’t always be two feet away. That’s why building resilience in your child is so important for their emotional development too.
“Playgroups allow children to experience the hurly burly of life with other people, outside the family home,” explains Karen. “It helps build resilience, as they begin to learn that not everything is going to go their way. They might not be able to play with a toy they want. Or they may learn that handing a toy to another child will make them happy. It’s a great opportunity for them to build resilience and develop a broad range of experiences that can help them over a lifetime.”
Related: 9 Reasons Why My Dad Is My Superhero
Let’s Get Physical, Physical.
Let’s jump, run, twirl and make playdough creations! Yep, you’re little one needs to experience a range of fine and gross motor skill action to get those mini-sized digits and long limbs working. But don’t panic if physical activity or fine crafts are not your forte. “Playgroups vary widely in terms of what is on offer,” explains Karen. “Some playgroups have lots of really great outdoor space, while others are more indoor, so children get the opportunity to try a bunch of things. They might develop their fine motor skills through puzzles, craft and toy activities. Or, they can develop gross motor skills by doing climbing activities, jumping or playing on slides.”
It’s not only the wee ones who benefit from this – parents get to be exposed to new activities too. “Parents can feel quite intimated trying new activities at home, like papier–mâché or climbing equipment,” Karen explains. “But at playgroup, they can see their child safely experiencing a little bit of physical activity practiced in a safe environment. They learn that it’s okay if their child falls over and gets back up again, or how to encourage fine motor skill development with crafts or playdough before they try it at home. Kids also see other children in the same age group trying physical activities, which can encourage them to try new things too, and enhance their gross motor skills.”
Encouraging Little Imaginations
If your little one insists on wearing their Skywalker costume or Princess tiara daily, or even to bed, don’t panic! It’s actually great for kids to get creative and use their imagination. “There’s a lot of conversation about the importance of creative play and creative thinking in both children and adults,” says Karen. “One of the key strategies for developing creative thinking in children is allowing them to play in an unstructured way, where they can lead their own adventures. We see it a lot of playgroups – children playing dress-ups, developing role-play scenarios with dolls and other toys. Fantasy and imaginative play, not led by adults, allows them the space to be creative. Creative thinking is critical for the next generation – we know that the next phase for Australians will determine how we use our creativity to develop new things and ideas in the future. We also know that children grow about 80% of their brain in the first three years of life, so we want to give them the space to get the brain firing.”
Get Rolling & Playing Role-Play
Does your little one fix cars like Daddy? Or are they busy with the cat at the vet clinic, administering medicine and telling poor pussy to rest up and take it easy? There’s no need to get all catty about it! Role-play is a fantastic way for kids to develop their imagination and understand their experiences – and playgroup is the perfect place to bring more characters into their expansive world.
“Parents can be quite confronted seeing their children play out scenarios that happen at home, but it’s actually a dynamic way for children to engage with the world,” explains Karen. “We know that working through experiences with role-play has very strong benefits. It allows children to make sense of situations, understand what’s happening around them and what these experiences mean for them. It solidifies their learning. You see kids playing schools, and sitting up straight for the teacher, or listening, or being teacher! All this role-play helps them learn and practice to engage in social behaviour.”
But don’t wait for them to request the Star Wars costume to start role-play, advises Karen. “It’s really important for children to be active learners and thinkers right from the start. They can tell a lot about what’s happening around them before they even develop language. They watch and make eye contact with their parents, they cry and act out if they are not happy, and infants track their parents every action from very early on.”
Want to join a playgroup? National Playgroup Week runs from March 20 to 27, with the World’s Biggest Playgroup Day event to be held at Luna Park to celebrate the importance of playgroup for both parents and children. Kids can play LEGO and Duplo, listen to Hi-5 pump out some tunes, create playdough masterpieces and much more. Visit Playgroup NSW for details. Or, for national playgroups, visit Playgroup Australia.