Research shows that play is not only important, but crucial for healthy child development. Free and imaginative play is all too often substituted these days with scheduled activities, team sports and computer or TV time. Overscheduling our children has a negative impact on their healthy social, educational and emotional development. While many parents believe starting their children young in these activities and getting them to read as early as possible will give them an "edge", research has shown the exact opposite to be true. Children need their younger years to develop the foundational skills that will then allow them to move into more complex learning. Age 3 - 5 should be focused on exploring the world, imaginative play, and developing social skills through play. During these critical years the brain is laying the groundwork and the neuropathyways for the years of learning to come. Pushing a child through any developmental stage before they are ready has proven to be counterproductive.
It is through play that children learn how to interact with and make sense of the world. They experiment with new skills and relationships, explore their imagination, creativity and emotions. Play provides a training ground for children to master new skills as they move through developmental stages and acquire new abilities. Early on, children engage in parallel play, playing along side their peers. As they become more social they start playing interactively with their friends. This is a crucial developmental stage as it helps them learn appropriate social skills and how to interact with peers - learning socially appropriate behaviors, self-help skills and confidence building.
Play is a great way to connect with your child. Children communicate their inner world through their play. By engaging in play with your child, you are able to enter their world, and experience it through their eyes - particularly if you allow them to guide the process. It is a wonderful way to bond with your child and "speak their language". It is a venue they can communicate their thoughts and feelings in a way that feels safe and can provide you insight into their inner experiences.
When children experience emotional distress they will reenact the scenario through their play. It is their way of trying to make sense of a situation or experience they are having a hard time processing their emotions around or that is emotionally overwhelming. Children need to replay and retell the story to try and make sense of what happened when something traumatic happens to them. You can help them process the experience by allowing them to use their toys to retell the story and name the feelings they experienced. For example, "when you rode down the hill and fell off your bike, you hurt your leg and felt really scared". Children often need to replay and retell stories repeatedly until their cognitive understanding of what happened is connected to their emotional experience.