The Importance of Playing, Puttering, and Pretending

Current brain development & education research supports: early academics does not strengthen the young child's development. Playing is a young child's work.


When our first child was born I was determined to do everything I could to “optimize” his development. This had even begun during my pregnancy, when I listened to lots of classical music, took lots of walks, thought lots of good thoughts. (This was a good start, mainly because these were all activities that inspired and soothed me, and scientists now know for sure that a mother’s stress — or joy — has a direct effect on her baby’s brain.)

But once our son was here, an odd sort of frenzied insecurity set in, about making sure I was “doing enough” to stimulate his development. I promptly bought a book on baby exercise—yes, baby exercise!! I dutifully followed the prescribed twice-a-day regimen of moving his various tiny limbs around and about, folding and stretching his new little body this way and that. It was supposed to get his sensory-motor development off to a head start, which sounded good to me.

Good News, Parents–You Can Relax!

As luck and fate would have it, just a couple weeks into our workout plan, I attended my first R.I.E. class, and what I learned there that very first day carried the blessed ring of truth. Actually, more like the booming clang of truth. And I got it.

I could relax—I didn’t have to “improve upon” or “optimize” anything! My child had an innate intelligence that knew exactly how to unfold his unique body. It didn’t need me to pose it, bend it, or prop it into positions that were not yet natural for him.

Unfortunately, it isn’t so much their child’s body that parents today are looking to optimize in the early years—it’s their mind. In an understandable desire to help assure our children’s success, we try to give them a head start by beginning earlier and earlier to teach them the alphabet, numbers, maybe a little pre-algebra. (I’m just kidding—I think! I’m keeping a close eye on that Yo Gabba Gabba robot for surreptitious math tutoring.)

But current brain development and education research supports what Waldorf education founder Rudolf Steiner taught almost one hundred years ago: early academics does not strengthen the young child’s development, but can instead undermine it! Intellectual work at this age diverts energy from critical organ growth in order to recruit areas of the brain that are not yet meant to be “on line.”

How A Child Really Learns

Due to the parts of her brain that are most active in the early years, the young child — up until around age seven — relates to the world primarily through her senses and her body. In other words, she is a sensory-motor creature — while we, the parents, are primarily cognitive creatures. (Recognizing how different young children are from adults “under the hood” — in terms of brain development and function — can help parents with their effectiveness and their sanity!)

So a young child’s primary modes of learning are:

  • Sensing (seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling and touchingindeed, lots of touching!) and
  • Doing (moving her body and engaging physically with her world)

Understanding this dual fact about their child can help parents with a BIG point of frustration that arises in the very first year:

  • Know that for a child to touch something, or to do with her body, is similar to an adult thinking about that same thing! This sheds new light on the “No, sweetie, don’t touch that” reflex that it seems we parents have overdeveloped!

What Teaches Your Child Best?

Activities that engage both learning modes – sensing and doing – are the richest, healthiest, and most effective forms of learning for the young child.

And the activity that most powerfully fires up these two learning aspects in the child is play! Play is the all-important work of the child until around seven… or should be. But in our hyper-accelerated culture we’ve lost an understanding and appreciation for just how critically important play is in the healthy development of our children. We somehow see it as a waste of time. A toy cannot simply be a toy, it has to be educational. Play cannot be for its own sake, it needs to be organized, improved upon, and packaged as “enrichment.”

But when a child engages in open-ended play (that is, un-organized, un-“improved upon,” and un-packaged), he engages the all-important senses: as he imagines the wooden crate as his pirate ship, he sees the tall mast, hears the crashing waves, feels the salt spray. As he climbs in and hoists the sail (Mom’s favorite guest towel), his body and brain are engaged in a stunningly intricate series of sensory-motor interactions.

In an hour of such play, he is stimulating robust growth of important new neural connections in the areas of the brain that most need it at that age. This development will serve as an important foundation for later academics.

The Cost of a Head Start

Child psychologist David Elkind, author of The Hurried Child, has devoted his career to studying the effects of early academics. When visiting Stanford University, he saw architecture students playing with old-fashioned erector sets in class. Why? They didn’t get enough hands-on play enough as children! As a result, the sophisticated computer drafting technologies don’t serve them as well because they don’t have a 3-dimentional “real-world” frame of reference for the 2-dimensional images on the screen.

The same problem exists when we introduce abstract intellectual concepts to young children — like the alphabet. Letters are symbols, and the areas of the brain that process and make sense of symbols are not yet available in an integral way in the young child. Children live in the realm of the concrete — what they take in through their senses.

Symbolic thinking introduced too early not only puts a demand on the young child’s physiology-building energies (as mentioned above), it has little depth of meaning for the child who hasn’t interacted much with the real world symbolized by those numbers and letters. This can lead to a more superficial interaction with words, ideas, and concepts. Not the best way to begin a child’s lifelong learning!

As Dr. Elkind points out, “The language of things must proceed the language of words, or else the words don’t mean anything.”

I’d love to hear about ways in which your child enjoys hands-on engagement with the 3-dimentional world — in other words, how he or she is learning “the language of things“?

Published on: January 26, 2015
About the Author
Photo of Marcy Axness
Marcy Axness, PhD, is an early development specialist, parent coach, and author of Parenting for Peace: Raising the Next Generation of Peacemakers. She believes we need to raise a generation who are "hardwired" with the brain-based capacities of peacemakers. Marcy is offering Dr. Greene's readers a free copy of her "7-Step Guide: Helping Your Child Release Stuck Behaviors eBooklet, a unique, powerful tool for parents to use with children of all ages
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