The Power of Play

‘Play is the highest form of research’ Albert Einstein.

Children are amazing at teaching themselves things! Who knew it would be so easy? Kids are innately powerful learners who have enormous passion to learn from the moment they are born. It is how we all first made sense of the world. Play is learning and learning play.

Play is central to cognitive, language, cultural and social development. Human society developed to where it is today in part because of our ability to play and be creative. It is purposeful. Take some time to observe kids playing and you will see so much learning going on and what’s more, that learning is extensive. Every single area of play - pretend and imaginary play, physical play or building in the sandpit, provides infinite opportunities for children to acquire skills and develop working theories about the world.

We want children to have ideas, be creative and have theories about the world. We want them to be curious and interested. Play engages with children's natural curiosity which in turn helps them develop ideas and understanding about the world around them. This means they are thinking about how things work. It means they are learning how to learn well. They are learning that they WANT to learn. Children that want to learn and know how to learn well in turn do well in their schooling and in life. It’s the prefect building block for a happy life!

Most importantly all play experiences, even the ones that end in tears, give children the chance to develop the holistic skills that they need to be successful adults in later life. This is because it meets the emotional, intellectual, social, physical and spiritual needs of children. It gives them lots of opportunities to increase their social competence and develop emotional maturity. Ending up as happy, healthy adults depends on our ability to interact positively with other people. Play gives us the opportunity to try out social skills, to practice them, to stuff up lots and ultimately learn how to resolve conflict. It’s a pretty great way of developing social competence I think!
I am an utter learning through play convert, especially child led, open-ended play. Having observed play in action in an early childhood environment for 8 years it is so obvious to see. I do still ‘teach’ my kids stuff of course. How to follow a recipe when we cook together or showing them how to tie a shoelace but their capacity to teach themselves when given the chance and time to try blows my mind. My daughter taught herself to tie knots when she was really young. Why? Well, she wanted to so she had that all important motivation but she also had heaps of opportunities to learn because she had lots of string and wool to play with. Quite simply she explored what it could do and realised you could bind it around things and then she wanted to tie off the edges so it stayed put.  Simple!
Time and opportunity are important things to give our kids whether in a classroom or at home. It is something they get less and less of I think, especially in busy classrooms with the pressure of a loaded curriculum and standardised testing - we are currently looking at the end of standardised testing in New Zealand though – Woohoo! My wee one built perseverance while trying and trying until she got it. She developed her problem solving abilities by coming up with a solution and her self-confidence because she actually did it all by herself. She also taught herself to swim but that’s another awesome story.

Play goes hand in hand with the development of good social and emotional skills too.  Nathan Mikaere-Wallis from the Brainwave Trust, New Zealand noted in a 2014 interview that research clearly shows  that how children feel about themselves as learners from age 3-7 years impacts more on how well they do as adults (such as going to university) than their academic ability at the same age.  He asserts that at 5 years old, when most children start school in New Zealand,  we still need for them to be developing their thinking and creative brains. Brainwave Trust recommends that we create the confident and creative thinkers before we start pushing all that knowledge based learning onto them. To create the thinker we need to give children enough time and opportunity to build confidence in themselves and their abilities. In fact I believe we should let them play all the way through school too. You can check out the interview here.
Let's take block play for example. It encourages children's understanding of mathematical concepts in a range of ways. Pattern making, measuring, problem solving, counting and grouping. This play enables children to experience and build on their ability to think strategically, logically, creatively and critically. This invites questioning, exploration and inquisitiveness. Children who love to play learn, because at its core all play is learning.

Additional food for thought –
Read or watch anything by Peter Gray, the author of the fantastic life changing book ‘Free to Learn’. He is an evolutionary psychologist, specialising in children and the impact of play on human development and a massive play advocate.

Peter Gray - Play is Education Video


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