Why play benefits children in the early years of school

Remember those childhood days of playing outside for hours with your friends until the sun went down and your parents had practically to drag you back inside?

While many may have thought you were simply running around wasting time, the reality is that you were probably engaging in highly beneficial activities that were helping to flex the muscles of your brain and imagination.

Neurological research indicates that the frontal cortex of children’s brains better develops when they engage in play, making it beneficial for a child’s growth and development academically and socially, as well as for overall health and wellbeing.

This research has played a part in primary schools of the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle redesigning their indoor and outdoor environment areas.

It is all part of the Early Learning Policy for Catholic Schools which was launched on 7 March at Holy Family Primary School, Merewether Beach.

The policy is influenced by current research in Early Childhood and is also influenced by Belonging, Being and Becoming - The Early Years Learning Framework for Australia (Australian Government, 2009). The Early Learning Policy details the importance of play for early learners and features other key elements such as data, environments and transitions.

The policy gives schools and their staff advice and guidelines on how to build knowledge, understanding and skills around the best practices in developing and implementing Early Learning initiatives and engaging children in this type of learning.

“This Policy is aimed at giving children a foundation that will enable them to flourish and achieve success at primary school and also at laying the groundwork for their futures,” said Kim Moroney, the Education Officer for Early Learning at the Catholic Schools Office.

Schools are no longer just focusing on ways to build and expand traditional learning methods inside the classroom. They are using play to develop a child’s capabilities, skills and understanding with over a quarter of Catholic primary schools in the Hunter region already creating hands-on learning spaces.

The saying ‘a child’s brain is like a sponge’ certainly rings true, with early childhood being a time of remarkable growth and holistic brain development. During this time, children are highly influenced by the people and environment around them as they develop their social, emotional, cognitive and physical skills and needs. They are unwittingly building a solid and broad foundation for lifelong learning and wellbeing.

When children engage in play, they begin to use higher order thinking skills and immerse themselves in deep thinking and learning, which enhances their desire to continue to learn. Play becomes an intense mental activity which not only sees a child discover, create, improvise and imagine, but also create social groups with other children, test ideas, challenge each other’s thinking and build new understandings. The quality and effectiveness of these play periods is linked to the quality of the resources the children have at their disposal.

“Play develops literacy and numeracy skills as well as giving children the opportunity to solve problems, self-regulate, work in teams and engage and connect with others and with nature,” said Kim.

Research has also shown that time outside boosts a child’s ability to perform once they return to the classroom. Results from the Priority Research Centre for Physical Activity and Nutrition at the University of Newcastle have shown that having ten minutes to settle down after being outdoors improves children’s concentration for about an hour.

While the classic grass ovals and monkey bars aren’t being pushed aside, schools are being encouraged to re-image outdoor play areas for young children ‒ considering sensory experiences, chicken coops and vegetable gardens.

“By re-imaging outdoor areas and indoor classrooms as more engaging environments, our primary schools are creating learning spaces that will help our students to develop literacy, numeracy and life skills through play, as well as supporting wellbeing,” said Kim.

“We want to ensure that we cater for all kinds of learners by having resources that connect with all children and not just those who engage in physical play.”

These outdoor spaces invite children to participate in open-ended interactions, spontaneity, risk-taking, exploration, discovery and connection with nature, giving them well-rounded early learning.

The idea is not just to focus on play as a part of the curriculum, but also to encourage children to engage in self-determined play during lunch and recess breaks.

Not strictly for the outdoors, play as a pedagogy or method of teaching is being adapted and brought into re-imaged classrooms to help improve outcomes for children in literacy and numeracy skills as well as in other Key Learning Areas.

The Early Learning Policy has recognised that there isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ formula and has reached out to the 45 primary schools in the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle regarding the needs and capabilities of the students in their school community, developing projects that fit their budgets and needs and catering for all kinds of situations and learners.


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