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The Importance of Play for Homeschooled Children

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Monica Z. Utsey is an accomplished writer and editor. Her work has appeared in national magazines including Heart & Soul, the Crisis Magazine, and Upscale. In addition to writing, she and her husband operate two successful businesses, One Word Tees & Baby Soul for Boys, clothing lines that feature motivational words.

Monica is also the President of the Southern DC Chapter of Mocha Moms, Inc. She is a foreign language enthusiast, avid reader, breastfeeding peer counselor, and proponent of Attachment Parenting. She is currently working on two books: Etiquette for African-American Children and Attachment Parenting for African-American Families.

She and her husband Eric have been unschooling their only son, Zion, age 4 since birth. Monica is a member of the Capital Area Homeschooling Community in Washington, D.C., and facilitates its book club for the early years (ages 3-6). Her future plans include returning to her Alma matter, Howard University, to teach about Afro-Latino Language and Culture.

This homeschooling mother also doubles as a freelance writer. Recently, I had the pleasure of observing a Waldorf-based nursery school on assignment and was awestruck by the peace. More importantly, I couldn’t believe the curriculum’s focus on play. In Waldorf early education (ages 3 to 7), imaginative play, cooking, baking, creating, and storytelling is the focus. Now, I’m not promoting this school, but the experience made me think about how much value I place on play. Am I too focused on "exposing" my son and not focused enough on allowing him to simply be a child, play and experience joy during these early years? I’ve met so many people who’ve decided they were going to homeschool, and by age 3 (like I did) began looking for workbooks, flashcards, and homeschool curriculums. That’s probably the last thing in the world we should be doing. Instead, we early years homeschoolers should be setting up weekly playdates and nature walks, painting, cooking, and doing all sorts of fun things with our children.

Studies show that parents do believe play is important, but they end up sacrificing play in pursuit of academic excellence because we live in such a competitive and cut throat world. But play really is serious business. Play is good for our children’s health as it a natural preventive for the current epidemic of childhood obesity. Play boosts academic performance. According to the Alliance for Childhood (it’s a shame that such an organization had to be created in the first place), play lays the foundation for later academic success in reading and writing through hands-on experiences with real-life materials that help children develop abstract scientific and mathematical concepts. Play is critical for the development of imagination and creative problem-solving skills. And, of course, we all know about the social and emotional benefits, which include increases in cooperation, empathy, impulse control, and reduced aggression. What’s left? Play for sake of pure joy.

Would you believe play actually has a definition? According to the book The Power of Play written by the Zero to Three Foundation in Washington, D.C., play is often referred to as the "work of children." Play offers children an opportunity to explore, and therefore, to learn. Any range of activities can be play, and any play can offer multiple opportunities to learn and practice new skills. Just as your child grows, these skills build--one on top of the other--a foundation for learning complex concepts later in life. Play doesn’t necessarily have to include "educational toys." In fact, the play experts suggest open-ended toys. "Great toys are ones that allow your child to explore, do, imitate, pretend, create, and have fun while learning or practicing something new. Toys that seem entertaining, but only let your young explorer look but not touch are not as useful for learning, because your child is a passive observer rather than an active participant."

Another important aspect of play is being in nature. Apparently, regular play in nature develops an appreciation for animals and the earth. But there are cognitive benefits as well. Children with views of and contact with nature score higher on tests of concentration and self-discipline. Children who play regularly in natural environments show more advanced motor fitness, including coordination, balance and agility, and they are sick less often. Who needs Children’s Tylenol when you’ve got the great outdoors to keep our children healthy! When children play in natural environments, their play is more diverse with imaginative and creative play that fosters language and collaborative skills. Who knew? Exposure to natural environments improves children's cognitive development by improving their awareness, reasoning and observational skills. Nature buffers the impact of life's stresses on children and helps them deal with adversity. Nature helps children develop powers of observation and creativity and instills a sense of peace and being at one with the world. This is so important during this time in the world characterized by war and materialism. Early experiences with the natural world have been positively linked with the development of imagination and the sense of wonder. Wonder is an important motivator for life long learning, something every homeschooler is attempting to achieve.

Understanding the importance of play should help assuage those recurring feelings of guilt parents have about whether their child should be in a good preschool program "learning" something. One of the most important tools for early learning sits right outside our windows—nature. I plan to begin spending more time at the "free" nature centers in my area. I also plan to set up more playdates for Zion where the play is structured by the children and not the adults. Life is too short not to play. And, since we are life long learners, learning all the time, we’ve got plenty of time.