About play and cognitive development for school-age children
Although your child is learning in more formal ways now, play is still vital for your school-age child’s cognitive development – that is, your child’s ability to think, understand, communicate, remember, imagine and predict.
That’s because children at play are solving problems, creating, experimenting, thinking and learning all the time.
Playing with you is still important too. When you play with your child, you can help them learn new things or practise what they’re learning at school. For example, if you and your child are playing a board game, you can practise numeracy skills by adding up your points.
And playing with your child keeps you close and strengthens your relationship. This is important as your child goes through the ups and downs that can sometimes come with starting school, coping with new routines and making new friends. A strong relationship with you gives your child confidence to keep exploring and learning about the world.
Thinking ability and self-esteem are closely linked at this age. Worries, big and small, can easily distract your child from thinking clearly and learning. Fear of failure or being made fun of at school can also become barriers. It can help to talk with your child about their worries and let them know how brave they are for trying new things at school.
What to expect: cognitive development and play in school-age children
School-age children can absorb new information quickly and are excited by learning.
With time, practice and experience, your child will probably:
- collect items like cards or shells, and enjoy grouping them
- be able to read on their own from about 7 years old
- be able to tell the time at 7-8 years
- know left from right
- be fascinated by science experiments
- be able to understand you if you try to reason or negotiate with them
- want to follow the rules and play fairly in games
- think before acting and ask permission before trying something new – most of the time!
Starting school gives your child a lot to think about. There are new rules, routines and more formal learning styles that are different from those at home. This can be tiring and confusing at first. Your child might need time, encouragement and support to adjust.
Many schools have programs to help children prepare for this transition. You can also talk with your child’s teacher if you have concerns or want ideas for supporting your child through this change.
To think and learn well, your child needs to eat well and get plenty of sleep. This gives your child the energy to play and learn at school.
Play ideas for cognitive development in school-age children
Here are play ideas to encourage your child’s thinking and learning:
- Play games together, like board games, simple crosswords, word-finders and card games – for example, ‘Go fish’, ‘Snap’ or ‘I spy’.
- Provide puzzles and encourage your child to work on them independently.
- Read books, sing songs, tell jokes and riddles together, invent new words or think of rhyming words.
- Play stacking and building games or play with cardboard boxes.
- Cook together and encourage your child to help you measure and weigh the ingredients.
- Write shopping lists or plan events together.
- Explore new places and share new experiences together, like joining a pottery class or going to a museum or concert.
- Play outdoor games, like kicking or throwing a ball together.
You can stimulate your child’s excitement about learning by finding out about your child’s interests. For example, if your child is fascinated by sea urchins, you could visit the local library together and find books on the subject, or visit the beach to search for sea urchins. Encourage your child to share new ideas and learning with you.
It’s a good idea to let your child take the lead with play when you can, because children learn best when they’re interested in an activity. This way, you can use your child’s interests to help your child learn something new. Your child will generally let you know if they need help, so try not to jump in with solutions too early.
If your child seems to be having difficulty learning at school or isn’t working at a similar level to peers, it’s a good idea to get help early. Talk with your GP or your child’s teacher.
Screen time, digital technology use and school-age cognitive development
It’s good to know that using screen time and digital technology can support your child’s learning.
For example, your child can develop problem-solving skills by creating an animation or working through a virtual science experiment. And sometimes your child can get new ideas for traditional play from screen use. For example, playing Minecraft might get your child interested in designing buildings with boxes, glue and paper.
Here are things you can do to help your child learn through digital play:
- Choose good-quality apps, games and other media.
- Use screens and digital technology with your child.
- Help your child manage screen time and digital technology use.
And remember – healthy screen time and digital technology use is all about balance. It’s good for your child’s development to do plenty of different activities, including pretend and creative play, physical play, social play and reading, as well as digital play.