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Play for Emotional development in Children

Life is an ongoing learning process. We are born to learn and grow. As long as we live, we find ourselves in the middle of situations where life expects us to learn lessons, detach from situations and move on. As adults we usually find impermanence and detachment very difficult to deal with. Perhaps because all through our growing years, our social construct was training us to conform, with very little or no scope for independent learning. To behave in a certain manner, to learn a structured curriculum in a pre-set manner was always given as the code of conduct always. Most educators have advocated play as a powerful learning tool for children to explore, build self-awareness and form neural patterns that lead to high levels of cognitive development. Some learning circles have also used play for grooming children in many ways from decades or perhaps centuries.

Social and emotional learning

When we look back at our childhood, it was the medley of situations we experienced, our response to those situations and the learning we integrated from those experiences that defined the blueprint of our learning process. Even though we were all learning with the same modules in school, the same question answers dictated by our teachers, yet our attitudes and values were different.

We can attribute differences between children firstly due to the unique internal wiring each is born with, and secondly to the social fabric of the ecosystem they are growing up in, comprising their homes and family members. The social context which we often label as ‘upbringing’ plays a huge role in shaping behaviours, creativity and the so called soft side in children. Social and emotional learning have been recognised as powerful primary bricks that create attitudinal differences between children growing up in conformed learning environments.

Another key element that really affects how one deals with life is how we learn to handle change or impermanence. Impermanence is a very difficult thing to deal with, especially when children grow up in protected environments. Many social scientists and child development researchers have often identified play as a powerful tool to establish the relevance of change in lives of children and help them get personal tools that help them accept change easily and effectively.

Play: A great medium to teach important life skills

 Children can learn to make peace with change and impermanence by making peace with making mistakes and failure as such.  It is only when a child learns to make peace with failure and mistakes, will he be able to take responsibility of his actions, choices and decisions. Failure and loss are huge life skills that children should learn to embrace right from their early years.  We should allow children to learn from failures by refraining ourselves from shaming or attaching labels when they fail. If children attribute a negative identity to failure, they will always be fearful of making mistakes. Parents, teachers, and caregivers need to give mindful responses when children make mistakes or fail at a task.

Many scientists like Montessori and Dewey have advocated play as a great medium to teach important life skills to children. Uncontrolled play with peers can help children build multiple skills and coping mechanisms. Key skills that scientists feel play can also teach are those of conflict resolution, decision making, effective communication and acceptance of failure or mistakes. Play is serious business for children.

We certainly cannot overlook the role that free play can have on developing the social and emotional skills in children. Many a times we come across caregivers trying to control the play environment of the child to an extent that he is cushioned from all disappointments, leave aside getting hurt. I am certainly not advocating carelessness or overlooking a child’s safety in any way, but controlling play by caregivers can lead to diminishing the power of play in the learning experience of children. Beyond ensuring basic safety measures, parents and teachers should allow children to fall, to earn their favourite candy, to feel disappointment on not getting something they really wanted and avoid instant gratification every time.

Since family structures are shrinking, and the families are smaller, children today are living insulated lives where instant gratification has become the new parenting norm. This can have far reaching consequences on how children view and handle life later as adults. Children need to learn and accept that life is an impartial teacher and does not show bias between people. It is important that we help children learn values and life skills organically right from the early years and not give it a treatment like any other structured curricular subject. It maybe a great idea to devise experiential ways of embedding play to build values and life skills in either our lesson plans, or through active group activities and guided play especially in the Foundation years of learning, which may or may not be structured at all. Play in older children, could be linked to manipulating objects and tinkering to build innovation skills at the Preparatory stage as well as Middle School.

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