I’ve always loved words. As a child, I was absorbed in books, pens, and paper, and as an adult I’ve sought to craft a career out of them. Without literacy, I would be lost. Language lets us communicate with others, make sense of the world, and engage with society. It’s the way we express our ideas, thoughts, and emotions. It provides a common structure to share what’s in our head with those around us, a system of signs and symbols that allow us to be part of something. I’ve always believed that the earlier we learn to read as children and the more often we do it as adults, the better off we are. Literacy is linked to better gender equality, reduced infant mortality rates, higher economic productivity, and general improved wellbeing.
English and American schools start formal teaching at five but there are plans to introduce a foundation stage for three- and four-year-olds. I learned recently that in Sweden children are not taught to read until the age of six. Instead of academic learning, they are encouraged to play and explore the world. In the OECD’s Comparative Child Wellbeing study, Sweden, Finland, and the Netherlands all rank in the top 10 for “educational wellbeing,” and these countries routinely report better quality of life.
Children in these countries spend their very early years playing outside, exploring the world, and thinking creatively. Studies have compared groups of children in New Zealand who started formal literacy lessons at ages five and seven. They found that by the age of 11, there was no difference in reading ability level between the two groups, but the children who started at five developed less positive attitudes to reading. A 2004 study of 3000 children, funded by the UK Department of Education, revealed that a longer period of play-based preschool education actually resulted in a significantly positive impact on learning and well-being through the primary school years.
Could it be that learning to read at a later age could have benefits, both for children now and the adults they become? Should we just let them explore the world through play?
There are numerous benefits to play. It can help develop social skills by enabling children to build connections, try out new roles, and test assumptions. Play is, of course, fun and can trigger the release of endorphins, the body’s natural feel-good chemicals. These endorphins promote an overall sense of wellbeing that is crucial for development. It improves brain function by encouraging blood flow and building new neural connections, particularly in the frontal lobe (which is linked to mental flourishing). Children who play are often more creative and imaginative.
Conversely, the focus on academic achievement and exam performance is linked with increased poor mental health, and does not necessarily result in long term success. An article in the Journal of Play explicitly linked the rise in psychopathology in children with a decline in play based learning.
Martin Okoli is a play therapist in London and works with children to help them express themselves through play. He’s also a writer, so clearly he believes in the value of language. He states, “not all children have the words to reveal their inner worlds and the play room can serve as a space where metaphor can be the language for a child. Play is a child’s natural form of self-expression and they can communicate through a variety of alternative means, which do not require words but show that the child has the same level of sophistication in many ways.”
It’s clear that the words we use have a dramatic effect, but are there other ways of communicating? Non- verbal forms of communication are hugely powerful. Gestures, body language, facial expressions, visual images, music, and movement all form parts of human communicative behavior. Language is a form of communication, but not all communication is language. A small fraction of a message is conveyed through words, with the rest coming through gestures, sound, body language, and movement. Sometimes words act as a limitation, imposing a structure and defined set of criteria that might not adequately communicate the underlying feeling.
Children sense and experience the world through their interactions with it. It’s something that the rise in mindfulness, for example, is encouraging us to do as adults. Daniel Ward runs Language Magazine, a US based publication focusing on “improving literacy & communication.” “Language shapes our thought and perceptions, even our dreams,” he says, “but it is limiting.”
It’s easy to fill our children’s days with lessons, classes, and work. It comes from a desire to see them to do well and live successful and happy lives. We all want our children to love books. Reading is great, and writing is my favorite thing in the world. It always has been.
However, perhaps the best thing we can do for them, both now and in the future, is just let them play. Language is our primary form of communication and connection, but it’s not the only one. It’s important that we let children open themselves up to the full range of senses and opportunities that we have for engaging with the world, and embrace them all.