The Best Summer School of All Is Play

Ways in which you can boost your child's academic skills this summer through the art of PLAY.

By now most parents have heard it many times: "kids learn through play." The specifics however, of exactly how and what they learn remain vague and under-appreciated.

Before hiring a tutor or enrolling your child in a learning center this summer, take a moment to fully understand why that may not be necessary. Barring any real learning issues, play can provide an alternate as well as less stressful way of understanding basic academic concepts. Not to mention the fact that summer is a time to cherish with our kids. Playing or simply "being" together can build a stronger parent / child connection which in turn helps our children feel safer, secure and open to more creativity, exploration and learning.

Parents instantly and instinctively recognize the value of playing with their infants and babies. Babies yearn to learn from day one. The act of playing with our babies helps develop their intellect, emotional health and social abilities. Infants who are played with perform better on standard perceptual and cognitive tests. Play increases the baby's drive to explore and discover. In turn the infant develops curiosity. Babies do not need to be "taught" to crawl, walk and talk. With parent's love and support the baby naturally drives to learn these things. We as parents simply follow their lead – their inborn desire to "learn."

Many parents however, are less convinced that play continues to prevail as a learning tool as babies grow into toddlers and young children. We begin to impede our own ideas of what our children "need to know". Parents fear that by continuing to trust their child's self-motivation to learn they may be robbing them of critical knowledge. The knowledge gained from play – especially play which encourages exploration and problem solving – can be far superior than anything we as adults may impose.

The following are some specifics of what academic skills can be boosted through play and what materials you may want to have on hand to support this.

Math Skills

Most adults know the basics of math but how many of us really "understand" mathematical concepts? One item that can help children gain a deeper understanding of mathematical concepts are: wooden unit blocks.

A child reciting their times tables may look more impressive than a child playing with blocks. It takes a deer understanding of block play to appreciate that the child is learning the same idea but in a more effective and more memorable fashion. The concepts learned from block play are numerous: counting, matching, sorting, fitting, using fractional parts of a whole, productive thinking and experimentation.

Children do more than stack and tumble blocks. Perceptions such as top / bottom, inside / outside, large / small, thick / thin, more than / less than / equal to, all are features of how the world works and all are understood more thoroughly through block play.

Unit blocks are not like Legos. They do not fit together. Children need to work hard to fit and balance, hone and test.

There are also available games and game books which are not only simple and fun but which will certainly help develop mathematical skills without the child feeling like he or she is being "taught." I've listed a number of ones I recommend at the end of this article

Reading and Basic Cognitive Skills

Creative thinking precedes a desire to read. Believe it or not one of the best ways to encourage creative thinking and in turn to build a love for reading is through imaginary play.

Through imaginary games, play originates from ideas rather than "things." For example if you ask a two year old to pretend to describe "a big elephant standing in the kitchen" he usually can not do it. As children get older however, they start beginning to separate meaning from what they see; action comes from ideas rather than what they plainly see. A piece of wood can be a doll, a stick a horse etc … This is an important life transition and should be encouraged.

Free play may not look like much to an adult observer but it demands that a child act against their immediate impulse and to follow "the rules" of the make believe game they are playing. They do not know they are restraining themselves in favor of rule based behavior because the play is fun. The restraint and attention required in school and in reading has its basis in these types of fun and games. Through the rules they invent in imaginary play, children begin to discover that following certain rules of a game can be enjoyable. This can help the later transition to more significant types of rule based behaviors (like school), easier to handle.

Leading child development expert Lev Vygotsky remarked: that "pre-schoolers who spend more time in imaginary play are advanced in intellectual development, are more empathetic and are viewed as more socially competent by their teacher."

In her book, "Notebooks of the Mind," author Vera John-Steiner examined the lives and minds of some of the world's most renounced creative thinkers. She searched philosophers, musicians, scientists, and architects including Tolstoy, Einstein, Mozart and Aaron Copeland. Imaginary play comes up repeatedly as a major influence in their lives. John-Steiner states: "The earliest sources that creative individuals draw upon are linked to childhood play." Formal education helped to add sharper focus but it was play that had the biggest impact.

The poets and writers John-Steiner reviewed recalled their love of words blossoming not in a quiet setting but in dramatic play with peers: "feeling most alive in sounds and rhythms in the middle of noise, movements and sharing lines with each other." Often how we as adults perceive a scene: (chaotic, wasting time, loud or unorganized) is very different from how a child perceives and internalizes the same scene.

Fantasy play in early child-hood can help older children master school content, to confront a new school setting and to remember and to think more clearly. That "self-talk" young children do while pretending is internalized into "private-thought" when they get older. This contributions to self awareness and can help guide them through many academic situations. This "inner-speech" has been linked to developments such as planning, reflection, recording and transforming the norm into new insights.


Try to accept the child's creative activities before introducing your own ideas. Children learn best through interactions with more experienced partners as opposed to through "instruction". Adult imposed activities do not take into account how young children learn. Listening quietly to adults is not how children learn best. Trial and error offers so much more.

Some adults do not like the way in which their children play and they may instruct them on how to use a toy. Also, it can be hard to resist stepping in when frustrations arises for the child. Try however, to avoid interfering. Efforts to assist can divert the child from seeking and ever finding the solution that will serve him best. Telling them "how" to use a toy can squelch their interest in it. In a research project aimed at promoting play among disadvantaged children, parents were taught how to "play" with their children. The results were most interesting: "Parental playfulness rather than directedness predicted children's later cognitive and social security."

With "educational" toys stress the enjoyment over the educational value. Problems arise when adults emphasize what the toy teachers over how the child wants to use it. I recall when my children's grandmother cave them a globe which speaks the various countries and continents. My children loved playing with the special "pen" that made the voice speak. They had little interest in the geography. I was determined to show them the "right" way to use it so they could learn about the countries. They quickly lost interest and moved on to something else. Had I left it to them I imagine they would have already picked up more geographical knowledge in their own way and on their own time. Instead, due to my interference, it became something they'd rather steer clear of.

Try to avoid playing out of a sense of duty. Children recognize and appreciate genuine participation. If it is a real struggle to become involved or if you are unable to resist intrusion or frustration it is wise to reflect on your own early childhood play experiences. This can help you to gain understanding of your own motivation and conflicts. It then becomes easier to work toward learning different different approaches that best suit your child.

Discovering your child's areas of strength and building on them will give their academic and social skills a much greater boost than will fretting over areas of weakness which can only exacerbate any anxiety.

The following are some suggestions, toys, puzzles and games to help boost your child's academic and creative skills this summer. Enjoy!

Reading and Language:

Lateral thinking puzzles
Illustory Story Seeds
Games: Smart Mouth, Apples to Apples, Bananagrams

Pretend Play:

Clay Wooden Blocks
"Toobeez" (a great construction toy that does not have to "be anything" when done.)
Old clothes for "dress-up"
An old video camera for making "movies"
Old appliances they can take apart
Giant plastic balls
Nerf or water guns (if you are okay with gun play)

Math Skills:

Games: Set, Sequence. Rummikub. Blokus, Mancala
Card games such as Spit or War
Perplexor Puzzle books and Maze books: encourage problem solving skills and finding solutions.
Wooden Blocks

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