As a psychologist who specialises in Developmental Neuropsychology, I am constantly made aware of how much emphasis is placed on academic learning in this day and age, often at the expense of experiential learning, particularly in young children. There is now so much focus on internalising the rules of spelling, for example that it is often overlooked how important play is for brain development.
Working with little ones, particularly when I’m working with a group, I am made acutely aware of these tiny little bodies squirming in their seats or on the carpet. I watch how they keep shifting forward, or are suddenly to be seen lying on their backs or practicing over and over the skill of tying a shoelace. It takes me back to when I was much the same. I can recall the sense of the others around me, the smells of my classroom, the colours and sounds. I have a distinct memory of the large windows in my classroom and all the light that flowed in. I was particularly a lover of reading (I still love the shape and sound of words) and the mastering of “See Spot run” held a particular sense of joy for me. I have to admit I don’t recall mathematics or counting, or any particular volume of work or topic. As a Sub A (South African Grade 1 many years ago) child my afternoons were filled with games and drawing and sometimes being bored. I became so envious that my sisters had homework to do (Grade 1’s didn’t have homework in those days) that there was even an occasion when I asked my teacher if she could give me homework. She was standing at the chalkboard just after school and she looked at me surprised (and I seem to recall a little annoyed) and said, “Nonsense, go and play”.
Being a Grade 1 child today is a whole new ball game.
Parents and teachers are under pressure to ensure little ones manage to digest a large amount of work before the end of Grade 1. For the child who cannot do this, there are sometimes far reaching consequences. Parents, particularly, are often anxious, stressed, and even depressed over the academic performance of their school starters. They ultimately feel that their child’s performance is their performance and the cycle of anxiety and pressure is complete.
However, I’d like to take parents back to that little one squirming on the mat because children are the same as they have ever been. They need to move, to run, to climb, to fall, to win, to lose, to be bored, to be dirty in the mud, to refuse to wear shoes, to fight over a toy, to learn to share, to make friends and be a friend, to get scared, to get scratched knees, to cry and to laugh. All these wonderful activities stimulate brain development – they teach behavioural and emotional regulation, patience, curiosity, creativity, develop physical ability, cognitive ability, and learning ability. They teach children to think.
As parents, when you are feeling the pressure of academic performance, when both you and your child feel overwhelmed by the pressure to learn, stop for a moment. Look at your little one. See the squirm, the eager eye for an outside game. Put aside the books, the television, the tablets and cell phones, the gaming stations. Perhaps take your child by the hand and go and play. Just for a bit. Commit yourself to a moment of exploration and curiosity. Put some toy cars in the sand and make a road, populate a sand city with leaves and twigs, make tunnels and bridges, a moat and a castle.
Play is an opportunity for allow your little one’s brain develop as it is naturally designed to do. While education is most certainly a gift to all children, don't forget to take regular breaks, to dispense with the books in favour of unstructured time with your child. That will be a gift to you both.