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Honoring Childhood: Why Quality Play Is So Important

5 min read

Students at Clarke Summer Camp in 2019. (Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic)

Students at Clarke Summer Camp in 2019. (Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic)

For children of all ages and abilities, play is their work. It’s how they learn about the world around them and develop social and emotional skills, and it supports healthy brain development.

Few families or teachers would argue against the value of play. And no matter what your child’s school year has looked like, chances are it has been challenging for them—and at times lacking in play. More than ever, children who are deaf or hard of hearing need the caring adults in their lives to honor what childhood is and let them have the time and freedom to play, explore and discover on their own.

The Gold Standard of Play, and How It Provides Vital Benefits

Quality play provides children with a variety of benefits.

When evaluating the quality of play, the Harvard Graduate School of Education recommends that families consider three factors present in playful learning: choice, wonder and delight.

  • Play involving choice means children are learning to set goals, create rules, negotiate challenges, generate ideas and decide how long to play.

  • When wonder is present, children are imagining, creating, exploring, pretending and making discoveries through trial and error.

  • Delightful play is just how it sounds—children are happy, silly, laughing and feeling at ease.  

Not all play measures up, and looking for these three qualities is a quick way to evaluate if an activity is beneficial.

From an emotional health perspective, play helps children develop social skills and can improve general mental wellbeing. Play provides the opportunity to exercise and improve physical health. It also has cognitive benefits as well: different kinds of play can help build a child’s self-confidence, executive function and an appreciation of nature.

How much active play versus other kinds of play children need varies by age. The CDC recommends preschool-age children (and their shorter attention spans) should have bouts of active play throughout the day.

For children ages 6-17, the recommendation is at least 60 minutes a day of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity. At least three days a week, that time should include one hour of vigorous activity such as running or soccer; one activity to strengthen muscles, such as climbing or push-ups; and one to strengthen bones, such as gymnastics or jumping rope.

Some children are considered high-energy and will benefit from more activity than the minimum recommendations. (If your child is high energy, you already know this.) Others may be content to spend the rest of their time painting, playing board games or creating with building blocks.

Challenges and Help

Group play can present children who are deaf or hard of hearing with particular challenges. If possible, choose play environments with good listening conditions. This may be a quiet space with minimal background noise, or a room with soft furnishings, which help improve acoustics. It’s also important to play in well-lit areas where the child can clearly see the faces of those around them.

When playing outdoors, clear communication is essential. A child’s willingness and ability to participate will depend on the clarity of the direction they receive. Help your child understand the rules of certain games by rehearsing beforehand and teach them to self-advocate so they’ll be able to ask questions of peers or grown-ups when they don’t understand.

It can also help to pair a child who is deaf or hard of hearing with a buddy who has typical hearing, as long as the buddy is eager to help. The buddy can help alert the child when an aspect of the game has changed, or if a new directive is called out verbally. This can be valuable to both children, as the buddy with typical hearing has an opportunity to develop social and emotional intelligence and also experience new methods of communicating.

One extra challenge this year: with many childcare and summer camp options still limited, many families will continue to juggle work and childcare. (We understand this is a struggle every summer for some families, which has only been exacerbated by the pandemic.) There is some help on the way, though. 

The American Rescue Act, signed into law in March 2021, provides roughly $126 billion to support K-12 education—and the law requires 1% of those funds to be used specifically for summer enrichment programs and another 1% for after-school programs for students who have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic and its disruptions. It also provides aid for childcare facilities hit hard by the economic impacts of COVID-19.

So your local school or childcare center may have increased ability to provide more support for families soon.

Ideas to Increase Play

Whatever your child’s summer will look like—camp, hanging in the backyard, or staying home while you work, with occasional visits to the playground—there are ways you can ensure they get the playtime they need.

Here are age-appropriate recommendations for how you can incorporate play into your child’s summer.

  • Toddlers benefit from pretend play of all kinds: dolls, cars and trains, blocks, and toys that mirror household items, such as kitchens or tool sets, allow young imaginations to take flight. They also help develop motor skills and executive function skills.

  • Preschoolers are testing their independence and often benefit from solo-play options: building blocks (e.g., LEGO®), puzzles and similar activities are a big hit with this age group. But socialization is also crucial at this age. Look for (COVID-19-safe) ways to continue developing those social skills. Playdates within your social pod or outdoor activities are great options.

  • Elementary and middle school children also need play, although they may start to resist that label as they get older. These children are old enough to choose their own independent activities. Make sure they get some physical activity each day, but beyond that, you can count most healthy hobbies as play. Depending on your child’s interests, you can encourage more play (and less reliance on screens) by instituting a family game night or having a quick game of catch/basketball after dinner each night.

  • For all ages:

    • Outdoor time is key. Some children happily rush out the door right after breakfast and only come back when they get hungry. If your child isn’t one of them, or you live in an area where that’s not feasible, find blocks of time to go out with them. A walk around the neighborhood, a quick game of hide-and-seek at the park or a short hike on the weekend all count as active play. It’s even better if you can incorporate casual learning into the outing. Depending on your child’s age, counting different kinds of flowers you see or discussing how those flowers get pollinated and the importance of bees and birds in that process can make it more interesting for them. The more interesting and engaging the activity, the more likely they’ll want to continue it.

    • Read! Read to younger children. Read with older children. Talk about books you’ve read. Reading is a form of quiet play and a wonderful way to develop both empathy and language skills—especially vital for children with hearing loss.

Most importantly, remember playtime should be fun, not a chore. The whole idea is to make sure children enjoy the downtime they need. Playtime also shouldn’t be a chore for caregivers, requiring them to constantly supervise children’s activities. Don’t be afraid to let your child get a little bored. That’s exactly when they start using their imagination and creativity to find something to do.

Read more on this topic in “Our Students are Children First” on Clarke’s Hear Me Out blog.

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