The children are right. Never has there been more research recognising the importance of play. Play is valued in Early Childhood as essential to best teaching and learning practice as well as being crucial to the child’s engagement, growth and development. The years from birth to eight are identified by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development as the period of time called Early Childhood. Play is a foundational principle on which the Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF) for Australia is based. The EYLF states, “Play is a context for learning through which children organise and make sense of their social worlds as they engage actively with people, objects and representations.”
Article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child acknowledges that play is a right for all children. There are great benefits to children when adults recognise the learning potentials in play and purposely extend these activities through conversation and action. Through play children are able to take on roles and experiment in ways not available to them in the ‘real’ world. Imaginative and socio-dramatic, constructive and investigative, exploratory and sensory play is part of a rich curriculum. Play promotes communications skills and relationships. It builds literacy and numeracy. Play provides opportunities for observing and identifying evidence of children’s progress. Of equal importance, play brings joy and it is within this context that authentic learning can occur.
Children’s play allows them to explore, identify, negotiate, take risks and create meaning. The intellectual and cognitive benefits of playing are well documented. Children who engage in quality play experiences are more likely to have well-developed memory skills and language development and are able to regulate their behaviour, leading to enhanced school adjustment and academic learning (Bodrova & Leong, 2005). Physically active play allows children to test and develop motor skills. It promotes significant health and wellbeing benefits.
Research shows that in play children explore what is new, refine and extend what they know, respond to uncertainty and engage in problem-solving. Research and evidence point to the role of play in children’s development and learning across both time and culture (Shipley, 2008). Many believe it is impossible to disentangle children’s play, learning and development.
- Pleasurable − play can involve frustrations, challenges and fears; however, enjoyment is key.
- Symbolic − play is often ‘pretend’ but play has meaning to the player.
- Active − play requires action and engagement with materials, people, ideas, the environment.
- Voluntary − play is freely chosen; however, players can also be invited or prompted to play.
- Process-oriented − play is a means unto itself and players need no goal.
- Self-motivating − play is its own reward to the player (Shipley, 2008).
Play assists with the development of social competence. Children can build relationships, learn to resolve conflicts, negotiate and regulate their behaviours. In play, children usually have increased feelings of success and optimism as they make their own choices. Playing is a known stress release,.
The importance of play therefore has major implications for all primary schools. It is evident from the research that play is a major teaching and learning tool through which the student’s needs, capabilities and talents can be observed, assessed and addressed. It is essential that parents, caregivers, leaders and teachers understand the power of play and view play as essential in every infants classroom. By understanding better the importance of play, we are able to appreciate its potential to assist children achieve success.
The importance of play is significant for families. It is essential that children have time to engage in play at home, indoors and outdoors. All too often, children are powerless in how they spend their time. Such decisions are being made by significant adults. Children are often overscheduled and ferried to activities which occupy every afternoon after school. This is not to diminish the enjoyment and interest such activities bring; however, they should not take place at the expense of play. Children need unscheduled opportunities to immerse themselves in play.
As adults, we need to advocate for the importance of play both at school and at home. Good quality resources need not be expensive. Sometimes the most engaging resources are found in nature.
Play suggestions are limited only by one’s imagination. Childhood is a sacred time and play is integral to the life of every child. By valuing the importance of play we are honouring the sacred time of childhood for every child.
Kim Moroney is Project Officer Early Learning at the Catholic Schools Office, Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle. She was the recipient of the 2016 Br John Taylor Fellowship, a research prize awarded by Catholic Education Commission NSW (CECNSW).
Some playful suggestions include:
- Encourage safe play practices to assist learning and decision making.
- Use quality resources…be inspired by natural resources…rethink plastic.
- Engage all senses.
- Develop fine and gross motor skills through cutting, rolling dough, painting, drawing, writing, mark-making, threading, climbing and balancing, digging and dancing.
- Collect items from nature, use items in collages, discover through magnifying glasses, sketch what you find.
- Physical play is vital − encourage some risk-taking.
- Engage in water and sand play with funnels, potato mashers, wooden spoons…
- Encourage socio-dramatic play using a variety of themes eg safari/zoo box….safari animals, binoculars, safari hat, camera; tea party box; ‘real life’ items such as tea sets, hats, jewellery, tablecloths, picnic basket.
- Set up a construction space with wooden blocks which can be left and added to over time.
- Set up discovery tables/tinker tables.
- Use mats and rugs to define spaces.