With this article we illustrate the importance of play-based learning for children. Unfortunately, designated time for free play is slowly diminishing in many curricula, and in its place the school boards put the focus on academia such as mathematics and reading. While these skills are crucial to an existence in this world, the incorporation of play into teaching and learning styles builds strong foundations upon which the children may grow.
What is Play?
Play is enjoyable and open, and encourages children to not only use their imaginations, but also teaches them to realize their ideas and imaginations through trial and error. This process helps them learn that actions have effects. Play keeps children active as they engage with their environment, other people, or materials. Through play, children can explore, take risks, identify and associate meanings. Play has a key role in the learning and development of a child.
Play opens the mind and brain to new experiences, thereby creating increased flexibility and learning potential as the child grows. Young children are blank slates and through play, they begin to form meanings and connections to that which surrounds them. They are shapeless at this age, and learning to take form. This is not something that can be imposed upon them through academic activities like reading or mathematics or even instrument playing: rather, they must be encouraged to follow their own ideas and visions to figure out what works for them.
Encouraging this behavior also teaches children that it is good to be curious and to explore, to expand the mind, as well as to imagine and have fun. It is a positive reinforcement of their desires. These children then go on to develop good memory and language skills. When they are encouraged or allowed to simply try, they learn to survive in their immediate environment and to adapt accordingly. This instills in them a reassurance of the value of their agency and autonomy, an key component of a solid foundation upon which they may grow.
Play offers an environment in which one may engage in activities or behaviours without fear consequences. The activity is freely chosen and cherished by the player as it brings joy and stimulation/engagement.
It is important that teachers, parents and other adults do not impose their rules or values upon play but to instead allow the children to engage in play and go wherever it takes them. Play is important because it fosters development in the areas of language, social skills, creativity and imagination, as well as enhancing thinking skills.
Interacting with the Environment
It is the way in which children learn to interact with and survive within their environment. It is where children develop and enhance their motor skills, by learning associations experienced through the senses (see, smell, touch, taste, sound) and subsequently, cause and effect. Studies have shown that children play most during the time of expanding comprehension of the world around them including social settings and the physical world itself, as well as verbal and nonverbal communication, and gives them time to expand upon what they’ve already experienced. For example, when they play, they often imitate what they have seen others do, whether in real life or on television, and what they have read about, using these experiences to create new scenarios and engage in activities.
In addition to reflecting upon what they’ve already learned, play enables children to learn new things as it makes use of both reflective and creative thought. Play is essentially the manifestation or realization of thought and experience. Play illicits emotional reactions and teaches children cause and effect or trial and error, whether these effects are in the physical, mental or emotional realm. This exploratory interaction with the environment and other people is the child learning how the surrounding stimuli will match (or not match) their concepts, and they will then learn to adapt accordingly.
Play provides benefits for teachers, as well. Through observing children playing, teachers will be able to see the children demonstrating motor skills, social interactions and language abilities. In fact, some scholars suggest observation should be a daily requirement of educators. This will help them identify the needs, strengths and weaknesses of individual children, evaluate the materials used by children and gain insight into planning future play activities. The emphasis is on observation of free play without imposing upon the children the values or rules held by the adult in power. This child-centric form of teaching, through observation, enables educators to work with what the children have and can do and want to do, thereby fostering the growth of skills or interests already present in the children.
Recess periods, breaks in the day when children go outside to engage in free play, are just as important as indoor play, especially when it comes to observation. The outdoor environment also acts as a learning environment that should encourage motor and social skills. Teachers will be able to make assessments in all areas of development by observing children both in and out of doors.
Play based learning allows children to try and understand concepts they may have already been taught, but play acts as the buffer zone wherein children process what they have learned and freely attempt to manifest or use it. Most importantly, during play, children feel free of consequence (ex. being evaluated) so they act more honestly with themselves and others.