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‘Play is crucial to a child’s brain development’

New book emphasises role of play in early years education and holistic development

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A young child’s brain is inherently designed to be playful and play is crucial to its development, an early childhood expert argues. 

In her new book, The Brain that Loves to Play, Dr Jacqueline Harding challenges the traditional division between play and learning, emphasising the essential role of play in early years education and holistic child development. 

By drawing on the latest research in neuroscience and child development, Dr Harding – director of Tomorrow’s Child and an early childhood expert at Middlesex University – discusses how the young child’s brain not only craves play but also thrives on it. 

Through rich sensory experiences and playful exploration, children forge new neural pathways, laying a solid foundation for future learning and growth.

“It seems that the young child’s body and brain are literally designed to be playful, and this is crucial for its development,” she says. 

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

“At this very moment, the 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.”

Her book also challenges the historical belief that play is a mere recreational activity for children, advocating instead for a holistic approach that recognises play as a fundamental aspect of a child’s development.

“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,” she says.

The book also discusses the challenges brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic and its long-term impact on children’s mental health. 

Dr Harding recommends that play and early intervention should be prioritised to support young children who have lived through such unprecedented times.

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.

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

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