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Play & Positive Experiences: Keys to Children’s Developing Minds

Much of today’s parenting advice often focuses on achievement—what your child learns and how quickly she does it—as a way to ensure a successful life. As a result, such advice can cause parents to feel pressure to help their child “succeed.” As early as infancy, parents are keenly aware of milestones like rolling over, smiling, and taking first steps. When children enter preschool, the demands continue as there can be an intense focus on “preparing” children for Kindergarten. From there, this pressure to achieve can carry on throughout a child’s academic life.

While the concept of helping children to achieve milestones earlier and faster may seem logical, this approach can have the opposite effect and instead obstruct children’s desire to learn and even disrupt their social development. Instead of putting children’s development on a timetable, recent research suggests that giving a child freedom to explore his world through play and experience healthy relationships and environments are the catalyst for success.

Unstructured Play

With the abundance of child classes available it is tempting for parents to want to enroll their children in many activities. However, the structure of some of these classes is not well-suited for children of certain ages. For example, classes that require toddlers to “play together,” “share,” or have “directed learning” work against a child’s development and interfere with her natural desire to explore her world. It is developmentally normal for toddlers to want what they want when they want it and to express independent thinking. When young children are expected to act older than they are capable of, it creates tension and unhappiness which interfere with learning. Instead, when children are given the space and freedom to explore and discover their world on their own timetable, then a love of learning is nurtured.

When children play, they make discoveries, build knowledge, experiment with literacy and math, learn how to interact with others, and how to work through and manage their emotions. Play is fun, interesting, and intrinsic to childhood. And when play is incorporated into a school setting, it makes school a place where children look forward to spending their time.

Positive Experiences

Smart Love explains that a learning environment that revolves around meeting children where they are in their development and responding in a way that’s appropriate helps ensure that children view learning as a positive, enjoyable activity inside a classroom and out.

In the process of “teaching” our children, we may focus on them learning specific facts or concepts, and then testing them to see if they are making progress. What parent hasn’t peppered their child with questions like:

· “What is this color?”

· “How many dogs are in this picture?”

· “What letter does your name begin with?”

Unfortunately, this approach is another form of pressure and can backfire because sometimes children will not want to answer or will not know the answer. As a result, they will feel that they have disappointed their parents and may lose confidence in their ability to engage their parents’ love. When this happens, children are more likely to approach learning situations with a fear of failure, trouble asking for help, inhibitions that culminate in a lack of curiosity, or desperate and unregulated demands for attention.

A more positive approach is to offer information gently by using phrases like:

· “Oh, you chose the red crayon.”

· “Oh, you have two pretzels. Would you like three?”

· “Look, there is an H. That’s the letter your name begins with.”

When the process of teaching a young child is presented as unpressured and enjoyable as possible, he will be able to reach his full learning potential because he will approach the role of learner and student with openness and optimism. As Drs. Martha Heineman Pieper and William J. Pieper explain, “Young children derive more enjoyment from learning and learn more effectively when you simply offer information and avoid confronting them with gaps in their knowledge.”

Children who are not pressured to show what they have learned will develop a sense of pride in learning for its own sake. They will also freely demonstrate their new knowledge to parents who are willing to wait until it crops up in conversation, saying such things as:

· “No, Daddy, I want more grapes. Give me four!”

· “I want the green marker; you can have the red one.”

· “Don’t go! That sign says ‘Stop’!”

Allowing children the freedom to engage in unstructured play and ensuring they connect learning with positive feelings can have many beneficial long-term effects, including improving academic success and helping them thrive as adults. As psychologist Allison Gopnik says, “The most important part of caring for young children is in some ways the easiest. Loving your children and giving them space to learn and explore is more important than crafting a particular curriculum.”1


Smart Love: The Comprehensive Guide to Understanding, Regulating and Enjoying your Child, Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D., Harvard Common Press, 1999.

1What Children Lose When Their Brains Develop Too Fast, Alison Gopnik, The Wall Street Journal, December 9, 2021.

Educational psychologist: If there’s one skill you should teach your kids, this is it, Vicky McKeever, CNBC, August 16, 2021.




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