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  • Writer's pictureJoshua Barr (M.A. M.Ed)

The Importance of Play!

“Children need the freedom to appreciate the infinite resources, of their hands, their eyes, and their ears, the resources of forms, materials, sounds and colours... Our task is to help children communicate with the world using all their potential strengths and languages...”

-Loris Malaguzzi (Reggio Emilia)

Play has been in serious trouble for a long time now. It has been attacked on multiple fronts. Children playing freely is increasingly seen as time wasted, the benefits of what play offers for children is seen as less benefitial than it use to and school time/work continues to increase with time for play decreasing. So it is important to remember that play isn't just something children do but a vital and necessary part of human development.

Defining Play

Play is both extremely complex yet amazingly simple. In terms of its complexity play can be very difficult to interpret and understand. Many educators take years, decades even to really become skilled in seeing and observing the vast amounts of learning that comes through true, child led play. Yet even with its complexities children are able to enter play so easily and use it as a tool for learning and skill building. They do it naturally and so for children the ability to play is amazingly simple.

I like to describe play as enjoyment. Now hold on before you say that's way too simple! When we enjoy something we do it for longer, we want to know more and our understanding of it grows naturally. I use enjoyment because it is a word the resonsates with me. It comes with many memories that add context and substance to it. I have also enjoyed many activities over my life, some easy and some difficult. We can spend hours and hours at something we enjoy and it isn't always easy. I also understand play as complex and challenging. Like all things we enjoy doing there are challenges to overcome. Maybe you enjoy playing an instrument. That requires focus, determination and pushing through challenges to achieve goals.

Us 'play advocates' understand that play is learning and learning happens best through play. Now maybe enjoyment doesn't work for you and that is ok. Find your word, that brings those same memories enjoyment does for me and helps you see the many benefits of play. Now if you do want a better definition look no further than the work of Peter Gray Ph.D who I will mention later on.

In the context of early childhood education play can be ehanced through a prepared environment that changes & evolves. We need to understand that play is the most powerful way for children to learn but also know that the learning that takes place can be limited to the environment and available co-players (other children and adults). When teachers adapt the environment to follow the childs interests they maximize the learning potential through play. Play is also the building blocks for life long skills. The more children play and are supported in their interests the more blocks are placed on their cogntive tower of skills, knoweldge and abilities.

Why Play is a Necessity.

Play isn't just making learning fun or enjoyable. Yet many educators fall into this trap of laminated letter worksheets to mould play doh around calling it "learning through play". Play isn't a "fun" activty based on a pre-determined "this is what kids need to know!" curriculum. Play only works when it comes from the child and led by the child/children.

The main problem with adult directed learning is its extremely limited. These limits suit the need to satisfy curriulum standards but often don't allow for adatable skills. The fun activities often laballed as "learning through play" can teach children to do select actions or solve a problem a particular way but they don't teach children the essnece of the skills themselves.

"You can teach a child to solve a problem but you can't teach them to be problem solvers. You can teach a child to create something but you can't teach them to be creative." (Barrkinderplay)

It is like Einstein once said "Play is the highest form of research". Only through play can children develop the skills to really handle and succeed in life.

The Work vs. Play Myth.

There is a misconception between work and play. When we define play in the context of early childhood education play and work are mutally exclusive. For children play is work and work is play or as Maria Montessori put it, "Play is the work of the child".

Brian Suttion-Smith was a play theorist who spent his career researching the cultural significance of play in human life. He once said "The opposite of play is not work. It’s depression." The belief that work and play are separate actions has spread through ECE due to three main reasons;

1. Academic push down from politicians who favour stastical data through standardized test scores.

2. Parents thinking that their children need to learn traditional academics to get ahead or succeed and get into a good primary school.

3. Teachers who don't know or haven't studied DAP (Developmentally Appropriate Practice)/ stop using DAP due to pressures created from policy makers (point 1) and parental pressured (point 2).

Children spend a great deal of time on figuring things out and play is primary tool they have at their disposal. Why something happens? How it happens? What the varied possibilities and consequences are? Schools and parents that seperate a time for play and time for learning are holding back children's natural desire to learn. "It is paradoxical that many educators and parents still differentiate between a time for learning and a time for play without seeing the vital connection between them.” Leo F. Buscaglia.

Play is the Natural Way to Learn.

Young children are naturally wired to learn from birth. Evolutionary, developmental, and educational psychologist Peter Gray Ph.D (I mentioned him earlier) says that"children are biologically predisposed to take charge of their own education". They observe, wonder, hypothesize, explore and create from birth. (See our interview with Peter Gray Ph.D)

System of worksheets, busy schedules and teacher directed instruction don't come from the research on developmental physchology or early childhood development but rather a system focused on school readiness over life readiness. Whether you are a parent, grandparent, carer or teacher of young children take some time to remember the importance of play in your childhood and the impact it had on you. Then compare it to the impact of those classroom with rows of chairs and the teacher talking about that thing you really didn't care that much about and that test you had to study for. Think about how play has helped you and now think about what it could do for your children or students if they had a lot more of it.

Below is a visual created by Barrkinderplay


'The Importance of Play in Early Childhood Education'


By Joshua Barr


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