There are many misconceptions about the idea of play as a learning tool. After all, what are children really learning?
It is well researched and documented that play is the most powerful learning tool for young children and yet in many cultures it is 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. Young children are not yet wired for formal, whole class, rigid and didactic teaching and it can have negative implications on a child’s confidence, development and learning if they are rushed into primary school expectations prematurely.
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 counties around the world including the USA, Finland, UK and Australia. Hong Kong policy makers began to implement play and child-centred learning into their curriculum guidance in 1981 and have continued to advocate this approach with the launch of their new curriculum guidance ‘Kindergarten Education Curriculum Guide – Joyful Learning through Play, Balanced Development All the Way’ (Curriculum Development Council, 2017).
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, take risks, develop language, empathy, friendships, solve problems, form conclusions, test out ideas and concepts. For instance a child who may seem to be aimlessly playing with blocks may be practicing a new found skill such as stacking blocks on top of each other, or learning the name and characteristics of a new shape. Children are also learning about quantity, weight, 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, and 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 because 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 need for their four friends or cutting a pizza into four pieces, one for each of them 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.