The Importance of Play
Playing with toys was once considered a frivolous pursuit with little worth. However, advances made in brain imaging over the past 30 or so years has provided solid scientific proof that play is essential for healthy brain development in babies and children. Legislators, educators, and parents alike have responded to this and, thankfully, learning through play is now a familiar concept to most.
As our children grow, however, the opportunities for learning through play vastly diminish. Whereas toys and games feature in early years settings, they are noticeable in their absence in middle school and beyond. The misconception that unstructured play isn’t as important as formal, ‘proper’, learning prevails. But why?
Aren’t you a bit old for toys?
Whilst the benefits of play-based learning are now largely accepted for children in the Early Years Foundation Stage, the stigma remains when it comes to older children. Playing with toys, or any imaginative gameplay, is typically thought of as juvenile behaviour and something that a child should grow out of before high school.
Parents with pre-teen children, or those who remember being that age themselves, will be familiar with that awkward stage when you still enjoy playing with dolls and action figures, but an accompanying self-consciousness or embarrassment has crept in.
Why is this? Well, children this age are becoming more aware of their own identities and how they are perceived by others.
The misconceptions of play being childish and silly means that preteens, with their greater desire to appear mature beyond their years, feel like playing with toys is something to be embarrassed about. This is often exacerbated by parents and teachers, who can be can be even less tolerant of perceived immaturity than other kids.
This is caused by a lack of understanding of the benefits of play in older children’s education and perpetuates the false idea that play takes classroom time away from ‘real learning’. The reality is that play actually has enormous advantages well beyond early childhood years. In fact, there are proven benefits no matter your age.
“Play is the highest form of research” – Albert Einstein.
The core idea of playtime having no rules is where toys work so well because they don’t force a child’s mind down one, predetermined route, providing more ways for them to discover new skills and concepts for themselves. Giving older children opportunities to learn through play encourages creative thinking, problem solving and resilience.
Social skills, coping mechanisms and conflict management skills are all strengthened through play as well.
Crucially, it provides a ‘safe space’ to learn about their emotions, what interests them, and how to adapt to situations in real life. Children playing with others, they are given the opportunity to ‘practice’ how to interact with others and behave in various social situations.
Supporting Play in Older Children
As the interests of the child become more complex as they grow into young adulthood, parents and teachers should provide age-appropriate toys and play opportunities.
It is crucial to make education and learning a fun, interesting activity. And that’s exactly what STEM toys do. They translate complex learning concepts from science, technology, engineering, and maths into simple ideas that can be easily grasped by children of all ages.
Children are able to identify with problems as a learning opportunity, allowing them to develop creative thinking and problem-solving skills that will benefit them throughout their lives. ‘Arts’ is often now added to the term, turning STEM into STEAM, recognizing the benefits to the creative side of the brain.
STEM/STEAM toys encourage original thought and improve cognitive learning at a fast pace. Kids are encouraged to think independently and use their intelligence to overcome problems.
Examples of STEM/STEAM Toys
While STEM toys might feel like a relatively new concept, if you played with legos or a Rubik’s Cube as a child, you’ve used STEM toys. Other examples are construction sets, building blocks, chemistry sets, robotic toys, number games, puzzles, among many others.
STEM toys are designed for babies, toddlers, and right up to teenagers. In fact, there’s really no age limit at which a person can find a STEM toy interesting.
The brilliance of this kind of toy is that it encourages active, interactive, and engaging play that leads children to think and discover more about the world and themselves.
At a time where video games and passive entertainment from screens is so prevalent, it is more crucial than ever that children are given the opportunity to engage in this type of active play and develop skills that will benefit them for the rest of their lives.
What is so good about STEM/STEAM Toys?
The proven benefits are vast, but here are some highlights:
- Cognitive Skills – STEM toys are designed with various difficulty levels and are great ways to improve children’s cognitive skills. They help improve problem-solving skills, boost memory, and encourage creative thinking.
- Confidence and Self-Esteem – STEM toys often involve some element of trial-and-error problem solving. The child may fail to achieve a particular goal immediately, which encourages them to adapt and keep trying when something doesn’t work the first time. Recovering from failures and mistakes builds resilience, coping skills and emotional intelligence. This is fantastic for improving self-esteem, as children have ownership of their achievements.
- Motor Skills and Dexterity – Many STEM toys require good hand-eye coordination and spacial awareness. Some toys require building, construction, model-making and more. Allowing your children to engage in this type of play will help build both gross and fine motor skills.
- Social Skills – Many toys provide children with a social experience. STEM toys can help children approach difficult topics in a play-like environment while playing with their peers or friends. Engaging in this type of play helps improve children’s interpersonal skills, conflict resolution, and teamwork. Developing strong collaboration and communication skills will help children become more confident and adaptable to new situations.
When do Kids Stop Playing with Toys?
The answer should be never! The drive to play is an inherent one and should be nurtured in children no matter their age. Instead of viewing toys and play as something children should grow out of, parents and educators should understand that STEAM toys enrich children’s learning and growth at all ages.