Children have a lot to learn. It is well known that the first eight years of a child's life are crucial to their development. A child's brain is building connections at a rate that will never be equaled again in the early years, as they race to develop those connections that will help their understanding of the world. Children learn best when they are in a safe, rich, enabling environment, surrounded by responsive, positive adults who understand each child's uniqueness, as laid out in the Early Years Foundation Stage.
What exactly are we trying to teach them? Children need to build their content knowledge during these early years. But more importantly, they must develop the skills for living in the world, test ideas, apply their knowledge to different situations, and connect their understanding to the world around them. Learning through play is where we achieve this deeper level of learning.
Why do children learn through play?
Play is something we all recognize, but it can be difficult to define. Play is often described as the work of children. We know that all kinds of young mammals engage in play, which is a strong argument for play's developmental benefits.
Throughout history, theorists have discussed a variety of types of play, from physical play to pretend play to social play to object play to language play. Each of them has one thing in common: the child has control over their actions.
Play teaches children about the world: Creating games, moving toys around, and creating new worlds in their heads enables children to absorb the world around them, understand it, and begin to categorize it in their heads. Young babies explore their body movement and grasp things as they crawl, while toddlers explore gravity and size in a sand pit, while preschoolers explore emotions and expand their imagination by creating imaginary worlds with their friends. Play opens a child's mind to the world around them. This helps children to learn more than just unconnected facts. It enables them to gain a deeper understanding of their ideas and apply them in a real-life setting.
Play is inherently motivating for children: Essentially, play is valuable because it motivates children. We know from research that motivation is crucial to learning, and play thrives in happy, well-nourished, safe populations of children. It consumes between 3-20% of their time and energy. It doesn't require studies to understand that. Children who are confident, healthy, and happy are naturally motivated to explore their world through play. In other words, you have engaged learners, learning something from every experience, instead of bored children taking direct instruction and gazing longingly out the window at the world of play just beyond their reach.
Children can take charge when they play: Choice and freedom are key components of play, as we've already discussed, which is why learning through play is so effective. As children play, they can become more self-aware and confident, two skills essential to lifelong learning. As key decision-makers, they also get much more satisfaction from what they've done, which in turn contributes to a more enriching learning experience. It is not intended to diminish the role of others in play. Children grow in confidence when they see adults or their friends playing too. As adults, we can scaffold language and create opportunities for curiosity and exploration in the environment. Children gain a lot from taking the lead, but it's a team effort.
Play can be a social activity: Being able to work together and build relationships is an important skill in our society. There are times when play is solitary, but especially for older children it is often social, providing an opportunity for children to communicate, develop communication skills, and practice turn-taking. Additionally, it offers opportunities for mutual learning. From birth, children learn a great deal by copying what they see. For children of all ages, watching a friend explore a new idea is a great way to learn about new things. Through collaborative play, children learn key how-to-learn skills that make them lifelong learners, enabling them to understand what they can accomplish when they work together.
Play gives children the opportunity to experiment: Play is a safe space for children. With their imaginations, they can come up with new ideas and solve problems while experimenting without fear of failure. As a result, they expand their possibilities. Physical play also emphasizes the repetition of skills, something that is important to physical development. Pretend play helps children test theoretical worlds and start thinking about and experimenting with what might happen in the future. One of the most important skills in acquiring the skill of lifelong learning is not being afraid to try things out and fail.
During play, children actively engage in thinking: In play, children are often deeply absorbed in what may seem to you like a simple task, persisting despite distractions. As a result of this 'switched-on' brain function, decision-making and memory, and retrieval processes are enhanced, along with memory and retrieval processes that support learning. It is for this reason that self-directed play is so important, children learn best when they are immersed in what they are doing and discovering for themselves.
Play helps children make sense of the world: When children play, they discover the real meaning of something, grasp connections and relationships, and explore what they've seen in the world.
They learn about gravity, balance, and movement when they stack a tower. Making their own marks and drawings teaches them about communication, symbols, and representation. They use imaginary worlds to understand the emotions and thoughts of others and to theorize about the future. On a balance beam, they learn how their bodies move and what their boundaries are. Play has endless possibilities.
With Wedge Whiteboards, you can facilitate purposeful play to achieve learning outcomes. When children are developing during their early development years, play-based learning is extremely beneficial, helping them to develop social & emotional skills and problem-solving abilities.
“Play gives children a chance to practice what they are learning.” But even more than that, early childhood play combines learning and practice into one.