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Just Playing?

As adults, life constantly presents us with problems. Life offers less problems to young children, in some ways as other people are there to think for them, help them, do for them, and sometimes denying them the need and experience of solving problems for themselves. Yet observe your children as they play and you will see them reflecting, problem solving and creating.   This is usually accompanied by energy burst of excitement and, of course, concentration. However, how can you support your child? This article will provide you with some practical solutions.

There has been a considerable amount of research, conducted mostly on preschool children, on the relationship between play and problem solving. A child’s natural response to a problem is often to ask for help, for example, if they need a drink or if they require their shoe laces tying. We even see children handing rubbish to parents for them to put it in a bin. Through your caring nature you may wish to solve their problems for them — this is natural.

What can you do?
Research suggests that opportunities to play with a variety of materials is linked to the development of two key skills — abstract (symbolic) and divergent thinking (exploring as many aspects to a problem as possible) — which foster problem solving abilities (Burke, 2010).

Despite the elusive nature of play, there is a superiority of play over non-play activities. Moroever, play is so natural and the resources used do not need to be expensive or specialised.

Think of children making a space ship or a den out of boxes and the way nature and play are so attuned, and where children play with sand and water for hours! When such play is happening, you can just step back and ensure that your children are safe and happy while they develop team skills and contribute ideas verbally and non-verbally.   You may want to ask some open questions on occasions to guide their thinking if something is not working for them after they have tried a number of solutions. You will be able to sense when this is appropriate by the feeling and mood of your child.

Are they looking confused or frustrated? An element of confusion is good as this allows them to consider and experiment with solutions; however, frustration may need your attention to keep them interested. Yet frustration can also ignite determination to succeed, so don’t step in too soon! It’s important to learn about your child’s interests to encourage play and problem solving.

Encouraging play
At the onset, keep an open mind. Just like when you encourage your child to try a variety of foods, exposing them to a variety of children and experiences is important too. Take your child out to visit museums, parks, beaches, to see animals, to interactive science centres, to browse around toy shops and libraries because all these places stimulate their imagination.

When you visit other homes, watch to see which toys or activities are exciting to your child. Try to avoid labelling toys as gender specific. Instead, allow your child to play with everything available to them. As your child develops, their interests will change, so be flexible enough to follow their lead.

When a toy or activity is no longer age appropriate and challenging, your child will lose interest. When you buy toys, begin with basics. Consider toys that have more than one function, require imagination, and provide a challenge; for example, there are bricks or building blocks of many kinds for different age levels.

Music is a fabulous stimulus for play and creativity as it offers a range of activities, including singing, playing instruments and dancing. Allow your child the space to use alternatives to normal instruments such as pan lids! Art and craft materials are multi-functional as well, and they stimulate imagination and introduce challenges. You can learn a great deal about your child, and yourself, through play.

Embrace creativity
On a grander scale many believe that creativity is the key to enabling technological innovations, which impact our economic survival and the future needs of society.

Creativity, in reality, is not a simple concept; it is somewhat complex in that it includes related elements. It is a personality characteristic or attitude that involves mental flexibility, impulsiveness, curiosity and determination. Children judged to be very creative display evidence of persistence, self-confidence, high energy levels, flexibility, openness to new experiences and a good sense of humour.

They may also display intrapersonal awareness, awareness of their own feelings and emotions. These attributes are also important as your child becomes more and more independent, so think of ways that they can be encouraged.

What can you take away from this as a parent? Children need activities where they can be fully engrossed in their play. Educator Ann Epstein calls this child-guided. They also need to be adult-guided for some activities or at certain times and they also need a combination of the two. What you can do is be aware of when you are over-guiding. Step back at that point to enjoy observing play just happen!

Further Reading
Burke, Anne (2010) Ready to Learn: Using Play to Build Literacy Skills in Young Learners, Pembroke Publishing Ltd Epstein, Ann (2007) The Intentional Teacher: Choosing the best Strategies for Young Children’s Learning, National Association for the Education of Young Children, Washington DC.

Problem Solving
In summary, in relation to problem solving, Ann Epstein (2007) talks about teachers being intentional in their actions by:
l Keeping in mind key goals for learning and development
l Creating supportive environments
l Curriculum planning and
l Selecting from a variety of teaching strategies that promote thinking and skills

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