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How Head Start's play-based learning fosters a positive mental health in children

Parents and caregivers often encourage children to engage in play because it is fun for the child, and it keeps them entertained. However, new data shows the benefits of play go far beyond entertainment. 


A 2023 study, published in the Journal of Pediatrics, claimed that when children have limited time to play, they lose their autonomy and miss out on chances to think for themselves, be imaginative, and understand the world. Furthermore, they have fewer chances to explore their interests and have meaningful conversations that stem from their curiosity. It ultimately prevents them from learning about what matters to them and why. The article went on to measure the differences in play between children who had an adult present and those who did not. Researchers discovered that children were more likely to engage in active play when adults were not visibly present.  


Children play outside.

“When children don’t have the chance to play together, without constant adult intervention, their conversations with us are often less rich,” the author wrote. “We don’t have a chance to hear from them about their explorations and collaborations – and they don’t that opportunity to tell stories to us. Why create stories and narratives for us, and describe their insights, if we are always there?” 


 “When children engage in play, whether it’s imaginative play, outdoor activities, or structured games, they are developing essential cognitive and emotional skills,” Laurie Sironen-Kroft, Step Forward Head Start Site Administrator, explained. “Play helps children learn how to regulate their emotions, navigate social relationships, and build resilience. These skills are crucial for maintaining good mental health throughout life.” 


Early education programs like Step Forward’s Early Head Start and Head Start recognizes the importance of play in children’s development. That is why, instead of focusing solely on traditional classroom instruction, Head Start incorporates play-based learning into its curriculum. This approach allows children ages 0-5 to learn through hands-on experiences, exploration, and interaction with their peers. 


In a play-based learning environment, children are encouraged to be active participants in their learning. They have the freedom to explore their interests, ask questions, and make discoveries.  

“This not only makes learning more engaging but also fosters a sense of curiosity and excitement about learning,” Sironen-Kroft said. 


An Early Head Start teacher assists children with puzzles.

Enrolling children in early childhood education programs like Head Start provides numerous benefits. By participating in a structured and supportive social setting, children learn valuable social skills such as cooperation, empathy, and communication. The structured environment helps children develop routines and a sense of stability, which are important for their emotional wellbeing. The social interaction and engagement with their peers also contributes to children’s sense of belonging and their self-esteem. 


“Head Start’s emphasis on play-based learning and the positive impact it has on children’s mental health not only benefits their current wellbeing but also sets a strong foundation for their future. By nurturing their social, emotional, and cognitive development through play, Head Start equips children with the skills and resilience they need to thrive academically and socially, as they grow older. This early investment in their mental health and development can have a lasting impact, shaping their future success and wellbeing,” Sironen-Kroft concluded. 

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