The Importance of Play

The relationship between play and learning seems obvious to many practitioners and parents, and yet there are still prejudices surrounding the importance of children's play: some people believe that children need to "work" not play, and that playing serves no useful purpose in a learning and development environment. This is surprising considering that play, with its high levels of motivation and potential enjoyment empowers children (as well as people of all ages) as follows:

  • children approach tasks readily and willingly
  • children are open and responsive to the learning within the play activity
  • children are willing to "try", and feel that they can "have a go" without fear of failure
  • children learn easily from their peers, working as an effective group
  • children establish constructive and positive relationships with those involved
  • children explore and find out at a level that suits them
  • children can negotiate their own response to the learning situation within the play activity
  • children sustain high levels of focus and interest
  • children are able to offer their own input into the activity, feeling involved and listened to

One of the greatest attributes of play is the opportunities it affords for learning to live with not knowing: we all learn more effectively through trial and error, and play is a non-threatening way to cope with new learning and still retain self-esteem and self-image.

To support children's learning and development through play the following conditions are vital:

  1. Adult Involvement
  2. Allowing children to share the initiative about what is to be learnt
  3. Enabling children to take risks, be creative and playful in their ideas
  4. Organise the physical setting to maximise learning and development opportunities
  5. Developing effective systems for observation and record keeping, and using these to inform the planning of subsequent activities

The role of the adult in supporting children's learning and development through the use of play is one of proactivity and interaction. Adults have the power to make a major difference to children's lives and their development by what they offer children and by how they behave towards them. Adults can offer support, sometimes described as "scaffolding", for the child's learning and development: the adult provides a structure or series of steps for the child to explore a new experience successfully and add to his/her initial learning. The key for the adult is to know how to provide steps which are small enough for the child to gain success, but challenging enough to motivate and take the child's learning forward.

It is through interaction with adults that children's development and learning is extended. If a child is left to explore something new on his/her own, the child's play is at the stage of the child's actual level of development. However, if an adult skilfully interacts with the child's play (and uses the 5 stages of supporting children's play as outlined above), the child will be involved in more complex play, extending the child's development and learning within the play activity.

Emerging evidence on the neuro-physiological development of the brain also indicates the importance of children making connections between areas of learning and experience through their play activities: through their exploration and experimentation, through their collaborative and reciprocal relationships. Skilful adults involved in the children's play use a range of features that influence the brain's growth and development including positive emotional support, stimulation of all the senses, presenting novel challenges, encouraging social interaction and an active style of learning. A considerable body of neurobiological evidence supports the importance of enriched, stimulating childhood environments. On the contrary side, impoverished and stressful early environments can be damaging to brain development.

Play is therefore essential for children's development and learning. Skilful adult involvement within children's play supports and extends children's learning and development. Children's work IS their play, and it is vital that adults support and extend children's play experiences effectively.

For further information visit the website of the British Educational Research Association.

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