Play is an integral part of a child’s life. Even for us adults, some of our fondest childhood memories include playtime. For many of us, play is about having fun, sweating it out and making new friends. But did you know that play can be a learning experience on its own?
Play-based learning can be defined as “the method of promoting, facilitating or reinforcing a skill or concept through a play experience.” Children learn so much through play. It allows them to discover, socialize, negotiate, take risks, create meaning and solve problems – all the important foundations not just for school but for the big world in general.
Children with autism can benefit from play-based learning more than the usual kid. From learning how to interact with other kids to making sense of the world around him, play-based learning can be an effective way of helping our children adapt.
So how do you play? Play is a way of doing things. There is no one definition of play. However, Aistear, Ireland’s curriculum for early childhood development lists down the following characteristics of play:
- Active – Children use their bodies and minds in their play. They interact with the environment, with materials and with other people.
- Adventurous and risky – Play helps children explore the unknown. The pretend element offers a safety net that encourages children to take risks.
- Communicative – Children share information and knowledge through their play. Their communication can be verbal or non-verbal, simple or complex.
- Enjoyable – Play is fun and exciting and involves a sense of humor.
- Involved – Children become deeply absorbed and focused in their play, concentrating and thinking about what they are doing.
- Meaningful – Children play about what they have seen and heard and what they know. Play helps them build and extend their knowledge, understanding and skills in a way that makes sense to them.
- Sociable and interactive – Children play alongside or with others. Sometimes they also like and need to play alone.
- Symbolic – Children imagine and pretend when they are playing. They try out ideas, feelings and roles. They re-enact the past and rehearse the future.
- Therapeutic – Play helps children express and work through their emotions and experiences.
- Voluntary – Children choose to play. Their play is spontaneous. They shape it as they go, changing the characters, events, objects and locations.
As a parent to a child with autism, you might still be skeptical of play-based learning as a beneficial tool for your child. Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Here are some of the common misconceptions about play and play-based learning that we often hear:
Sure you may think that way because for most adults the mental picture of playing is kids sweating, making noises and making a mess. But the thing is, play is how your child makes sense of his environment. Active play builds your child’s muscles and bones. Playgrounds teach them how to take turns, negotiate and cooperate - essential skills that therapists teach and reinforce during our children’s therapy.
The most beautiful thing about play is that it has no limits. Whatever your child’s age is, he or she can play and learn through it. Even adults can benefit from it. Have fun with your kids and rediscover your inner child. Not only will it help you destress, it will also help you better understand how your child sees and does things.
Fun story: There was a time when bottle caps would mysteriously disappear in our home. Soda bottles in the fridge were left open but untouched. Condiments were left on the countertop opened. You get the picture. Turns out my then-3-year-old daughter would collect them. She would sort them out by size and color. She would then play with them, create towers and make up stories with bottle cap characters.