Childhood play is one of the defining behaviors and characteristics of children all around the world, and scientists are now developing a much more detailed and in depth understanding of not just why children play, but how play helps them to develop socially and emotionally.
It turns out that high energy, noisy, dizzying, free and unstructured play where children have the opportunity to be themselves and experiment with ordering and reordering the social structure that they find themselves in provides them with important opportunities to develop both socially and emotionally.
Tactile (or sensory) play in young children in particular leads to many developmental benefits, in part due to the explorative and investigative nature of this type of play.
1 – Experiencing emotions in a safe environment.
From frustration and anger to excitement and elation, young children have the opportunity to experience all manner of emotions, both positive and negative, during tactile play both on their own and with playmates. Here, they can learn to identify said emotions and become accustomed to experiencing them without their reactions having real-world consequences outside of the group.
2 – Building problem solving skills and emotional strength.
Encountering problems with tactile/sensory play is normal, since a lot of the time things don’t go as planned and obstacles need to be overcome in order for the child’s end goal to be reached. This process can bring with it a whole range of troubling emotions that need to be recognized and worked through, building the child’s strength for dealing with their emotions while also finding solutions to problems and learning that they can in fact achieve what they set out to do.
3 – Learning to be emotionally flexible.
Maybe a certain shape won’t fit through the hole that they want it to, or they don’t have enough toy pieces to construct the perfect house they envisioned. Because tactile play involves children forming an idea of what they will do before trying to accomplish it, they are put in a position where they must accept when a goal is unachievable and learn how to navigate around this and continue playing rather than fixating on the issue.
4 – Developing social resilience.
Tactile play with playmates means learning to negotiate with others in terms of what to build and finding out if each child wants to work together or not. Having their ideas rejected by others or even having someone reject their help and teamwork can be a hard emotional process for a child but learning that it is okay and it doesn’t mean they are not valuable contributors builds their social resiliency.
5 – Learning about social awareness.
Building on social resiliency, social awareness is the ability of understanding someone else’s perspective and empathizing with how they see things. Tactile play gives kids an opportunity to ask each other why they chose that idea, or why they like a particular activity whereby they can learn about each other and accept their differences in perspectives.
6 – Learning to belong to a social group.
This could be learning to be happy and comfortable with their particular playmates or finding a group enthusiastic about a particular tactile play activity. This is crucial for any child’s social development, because becoming accustomed to belonging to a group with a unifying identity and confident relationships directly translates to their adult life and ease of building future group identities.
7 – Practicing communication and language skills.
Scientists have found that developing motor-skills early in life, such as those built through tactile play, have a direct relation to a child’s development of language skills. This doesn’t mean that you need one to develop the other, but it is thought that rhythmic movements and assembling/disassembling things are precursors to forming rhythmic speech and experimenting with language structures at a young age.
8 – Developing healthy interpersonal boundaries.
Deciding when they want to work alone or with somebody, and then negotiating the proximity with which work is carried out is effective practice for learning and practicing where a child prefers to set their interpersonal boundaries with others and how to communicate what they want.
9 – Learning to know when to lead and when to follow.
Children have a natural talent for going after what they want when it comes to tactile play, however when there are too many chiefs and not enough Indians in a group, or if they require some help and guidance when playing on their own, then they naturally have to take a back seat and let someone else take the reins in the name of playing nicely or getting the help to a problem they can’t fix themselves.