Jumping Into Social Development

How do children learn social-emotional skills through jumping? The benefits of physical play, part 2.


How Children Learn—Spoiler Alert: They Learn Naturally.

Child are natural born scientists. Yes, we may have heard that, but what does it mean? As do scientists, children learn through experimentation, through developing and testing theories, through interactions with their natural environment, through careful observation, and through imitation. This exploration is called play.

From the earliest age of infancy, children learn about their world by exploring, manipulating, and testing it, reassessing what they’ve found, adjusting their hypothesis, and testing again. Ever notice how strong of a manipulator your three-year-old seems to be? That’s because they’re testing your response. They are willing to try anything—crying, screaming, guilt-tripping, begging, whining, batting their eyelashes and flashing their adorable smiles—to get you to do what they want. They are asking you to say yes or no, to add to their book of knowledge about what works and what doesn’t, what you are going to allow, and what you aren’t.

Do you remember when your infant would toss their carrots on the floor while sitting in their high chair, and look up at you expectantly? Do you remember when, moments after you returned the carrots to them, they would do it again, with that same curious but innocent look in their eyes? Your child wasn’t just throwing food on the floor because it was fun, (although, arguably, it is quite fun), they were testing your reaction. They wanted to know if every time they dropped their food, you would be there to pick it up.

Children spread their arms out wide, looking for the boundaries and the laws of the social and scientific world. They try various behaviors, seeing what response they’ll get, and if the response repeats and is the same every time. After enough testing, they know what to expect in a certain situation (although, that doesn’t mean the testing won’t return). They are constructing their knowledge and image of the world based on these interactions and the responses they get. The answers they are looking for aren’t just expectations for behavior, but also how relationships and materials function.

The same patterns show up in their play. Through play children test out theories about physics: How many blocks can I balance before this topples over? How do I increase that number? Will a stronger base make this sturdier?

They test out theories about social interactions: If I yell, “There’s a monster! Quick! Get in the house!” Will my friend follow me under the table and start playing this game with me? If my friend takes a toy and I scream at them, will they give it back? What if I offer them a different toy instead?

And, perhaps the biggest theme in play, they test out theories about social roles, dynamics, and themes they see showing up in the adult world, through what we call socio-dramatic play, which is just a fancy way of saying pretend play. In socio-dramatic play, children take on various roles, create situations and worlds, and act them out. This play often mimics typical “adult” activities such as traveling, putting out a fire, going to the doctor, or taking care of babies. Children use their play to work through their ideas about these adult themes. Through observing this kind of play — play that is usually inspired by things they have seen you, or other adults in their lives, do or talk about — you can discover your children’s deepest thoughts and biggest ideas about the world around them. They are still testing theories during this play, as they as testing out how other children will respond or how their emotions change when they take on different roles or go through different situations.

Your child is constantly testing the world and constructing their knowledge through the results. Your child is testing their toys. Your child is testing their friends. Your child is testing you. Children don’t need direct instruction to learn; their whole life is learning. They are constantly developing theories, testing them, adjusting them based on their findings, and testing them again. In this way, they learn how the world works, they learn about cultural and social expectations, they learn about social interactions, they learn how materials function, they learn to create and build, and in this socially demanding human world, they, essentially, learn how to survive.

“What Kids Need from Grown-Ups (but Aren’t Getting)”

“We’re underestimating kids in terms of their enormous capacity to be thoughtful and reflective, and, I would argue, that’s because we’re not giving them enough time to play and to be in relationships with others.”

In her interview, Erika Christakis’ discusses the plight of modern preschool in America, how academics are pushing their way into the younger years, and the importance of play. She paints a picture of the vast benefits of play, the capabilities of young children, their deep desire to learn, and how our current system affects critical thinking and dialogue later in life.

Christakis’ views reflect many of my own views of preschool and our current system, and her ideas about the importance of play are reflected in the early childhood center that I work at. It is exciting to see more people speaking out about these issues. It is a fascinating interview.

Should I Play With My Child?

Is it good for your children’s development to play with them? In what ways is it good for them? In what ways can it interfere with their development? What can children learn from you, and what can you learn from them? In what ways can playing with your child be fun and effective for both parties? When is it okay to say no?

In his article, “Playing with Children: Should You, and If So, How?” Peter Gray discusses whether or not parents should play with their child, and the different ways in which a parent can engage in play. Gray touches on difficulties such as one party dominating the play, repetitive play, and feeling guilted into playing with your child. Gray identifies the importance of play and its role in children’s social development, and why parents participating in this play may not be the best way to encourage that growth. Gray also lists some ways that parents can enjoy playing with their children without encountering the difficulties listed above.

This article made me think about my own experience playing with, and deciding when it is appropriate to play with, children. I agree with many of the ideas that Peter Gray presents, and I want to delve deeper into the idea of engaging in socio-dramatic play with children, and why it is difficult and often unproductive for adult-child relationships.

My lens for this article is 2-5-year-olds. With this age, allowing them to play, unsupervised, with other kids their age doesn’t work as well as it does with older kids; younger kids need more emotional and social support. However, children do need other children to play with. A couple interesting questions to consider are these: How much interaction with other young children does a child need? What can they learn from their parents, and what can they learn from their peers?

My job is to monitor and encourage play between children. I play with children, occasionally. I playfully wrestle with them, build with them, tell them stories, and listen to their stories. Sometimes, in order to engage a child in an activity, I will sit down and do it myself. They notice and come over to ask me what I’m doing. Some of them join, and they may copy me, ask if they can do it with me, or engage with the material alongside me. Children like to imitate what adults are doing. However, the majority of my time is spent observing children’s play, facilitating play between children when they need help navigating situations, and scaffolding their play. On the other hand, my job is also to balance both of these ideas: being involved enough to scaffold, but not being so involved that I take over. This plays out differently when I am an educator monitoring play than when I am a grown-up taking part in the play, but in both situations balance is important.

What can children learn from you, and what can you learn from them? Play should provide a chance for adults to learn about their children, take notice of their talents and their strengths, their struggles, their personality quirks and how they handle difficult problems or situations, as well as how their socio-dramatic play relates to their lives and what they are currently working through or trying to understand. Play should provide a chance for children to share what is important to them with the close adults in their lives, deepen their relationships, and continue to build their understanding of the world.

There are many ways to engage with your child. Some of these options include observing, asking them questions, playfully wrestling with them, doing a simple activity such as playing ball together, or taking part in a building, construction, lego, or block project. Some of these activities are play, some of them not, and the most important aspect is that you are learning more about your child and their world. If you approach play and interactions with your child in this way, as an opportunity to learn more about them, then it will be interesting for both of you. In this situation no one is taking over, and the parent and child get the chance to have fun experiences with one another.

Whether or not parents should engage in socio-dramatic play with their child is a difficult question. Adults are no longer drawn to play that way, and, unlike children, adults don’t use this type of play as a way to build our understanding of the culture, relationships, expectations, and interactions around us. Because of this, I find myself struggling every time I engage in dramatic play with a child, and the result is usually a takeover either by the child or me. This type of play is something a parent could engage in sparingly. However, it is important to always keep in mind that this play is not designed to have one person be the boss, so stand up for your contributions.

It is okay to say no. If you don’t feel like playing a game for any reason, or engaging in a specific type of play, then tell your child you aren’t in the mood for it. Be honest and candid with them. You can give them an option of playing that game by them-self, or choosing something else to play with you. Kids say no to each other when it comes to play, adults say no to each other about certain activities, and saying no to your child teaches them that everyone, even you, has feelings, desires, and needs. It’s okay to be a human with emotions and preferences, and it’s okay to share those with your child. In fact, it is good to share them; it helps your child relate to you and understand you better, and it deepens your relationship. You don’t have to cater to your child’s every desire to be a perfect parent. In fact, that can be detrimental to children’s growth.

Playing together is an important piece of an adult-child relationship. Children are always trying to find ways to make connections with adults. While it’s not necessary (or especially effective) for you to be your child’s main playmate, it is important to make those connections with your child, be involved in their life, spend time learning more about them, and spend a lot of time interacting with them. This time together helps them to build their understanding of the world, and develop their values, expectations, and knowledge with your influence.