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Lighting up the brain: The power of play in child development

A young child’s body and brain are literally designed to be playful, and this is crucial for neural development, says Dr. Jacqueline Harding, a renowned early childhood expert at Middlesex University and the director of Tomorrow’s Child.

In her new book, “The Brain that Loves to Play,” Dr. Harding emphasizes the indispensable role of play in fostering the holistic development of young children.

“Children are naturally wired to play and any sustained deviation from this masterful design comes at a price.”

Play and learning

Dr. Harding challenges the long-standing dichotomy between play and learning, highlighting play’s pivotal function in the educational spectrum of early childhood. 

“At this very moment, his brain also starts to ‘jump’ and light up with joy as connections between neurons make impressive progress. Does this experience count as learning? Absolutely yes.”

The book signifies joyous moments of play as monumental instances of cognitive progression. Dr. Harding advocates for the essential and inseparable integration of play into the learning processes of children ranging from birth to five years old.

Neuroscientific foundations

Dr. Harding provides insightful observations on how a child’s brain inherently yearns and optimally flourishes through play. 

She notes that engaging in playful activities and sensory experiences significantly facilitates the creation of new neural pathways, establishing a robust foundation for future learning and growth. 

These neural pathways, carved through play before reaching six years of age, significantly influence the child’s future learning capacities and opportunities.

Traditional perspectives on play

The book invites readers to reassess and discard the outdated belief that dismisses play as a trivial recreational activity. 

Instead, Dr. Harding supports a holistic perspective, asserting play as a fundamental element of a child’s developmental architecture.

“There is no doubt, according to all the latest research, that the brain loves to play – and it is time that as adults we got on board with this notion too.”

Pandemic-induced challenges

Dr. Harding’s book explores the acute challenges precipitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly its detrimental effects on children’s mental health. 

In navigating through these unprecedented challenges, she emphasizes the urgency of prioritizing play and early intervention strategies to effectively support the children who have weathered through the storm of the pandemic.

Supporting children through play

By simplifying complex terminologies and offering illustrative case studies, Dr. Harding empowers adults with practical knowledge and tools to seamlessly incorporate play into their daily interactions with children.

“As we emerge from a pandemic which has significantly impacted all our lives, there can be no better place to begin than considering how we can rewrite the narrative through support in the early years,” she says.

Dr. Harding also emphasizes that the book is not an exhaustive compilation of scientific findings but rather a practical guide for adults seeking to better understand the value of play in young children’s development. 

“It is my belief that a greater awareness of how we can support children is vital for all who care for young children,” she says.

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