It is a well-documented and known fact that play is the most powerful learning tool for young children and yet, in many cultures it is still undervalued and misunderstood. Experts would agree that ‘play is children’s work’, it’s how children make sense of their world and makes learning meaningful to them. Play is absolutely critical for every child’s overall emotional, cognitive, intellectual, physical and language development as well as their overall well-being.
The inclusion of play has been well researched and documented as early as the 17th Century and implemented into early year’s education policy making in many countries around the world including the USA, Finland, UK and Australia. Hong Kong policy makers really began to implement play into their curriculum guidance in 1981.
The benefits of play are endless. Play motivates children and when children are motivated and interested they learn naturally. Play provides the platform for children to take control, develop language, empathy, friendships, take risks, solve problems, form conclusions, test out ideas and concepts.
For instance, a child who may seem to be aimlessly playing with water may be practicing a new found skill (such as pouring from a height), or reliving the experience of seeing a waterfall, or perhaps they may be feeling anxious or sad and gaining comfort from this calming activity. Children are also learning about quantity, volume and other mathematical and scientific concepts, not to mention developing their hand-eye coordination and small muscle development. All of these skills help to form the all-important foundations for future academic success.
By giving children space to play they are able to explore ideas, relationships, feelings and make connections between one experience and another. They need opportunities within play to use one thing to represent another, for example using a block as a mobile phone; this lays critical foundations for the later use of abstract symbols such as letters and numbers to represent ideas.
Because the learning benefits of play are not always directly visible to parents and inexperienced teachers, there is sometimes pressure to get children to produce physical evidence such as producing work on paper. They think this is evidence of learning, which of course is not the case.
In play children can put ideas and concepts into context. For example, a child role playing how many cups and saucers they are going to need for their four friends or teddy bears is much more meaningful than being given a worksheet to teach the concept of four and one to one correspondence.
Parents sometimes worry that play is a ‘waste of time’ and that their children are not learning. However, children making a later start to formal schooling generally achieve greater success academically because their play based early years’ experience was meaningful and gave them a solid foundation for later learning.
To maximise children’s learning through play, a high quality early years programme is essential. Young children should be taught by knowledgeable and skillful teachers. They need to understand the various types and levels of play as well as know when to intervene and scaffold the children’s learning, taking them to the next level. Skillful teachers will create a stimulating learning environment which provides a balance of child-initiated, imaginative, messy, sensory, creative, physical and teacher-directed play opportunities. Time should be given for the all-important deep level learning which is a critical component of quality play. An environment should be created where children can feel safe, valued, confident and supported. A platform for children to be able to follow their interests and passions, make choices, test out their ideas and learn from their mistakes and successes is best.