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Why Play? Learning in the Early Years
By Dr Michelle Hill, ISZL Assistant Principal

At ISZL, in our "Early Years Vision in Action" we describe play as "a powerful vehicle for exploration and learning".  But what do we mean by 'play', why do we value it and what is the link between play and learning?

Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852) considered play to be "the highest expression of human development in childhood, for it alone is the free expression of what is in the child's soul." Froebel is arguably the first advocate of a child's right to play, a right that is now upheld by the United Nations:

"UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 31: recognises the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts."

When we look at research literature we find common perceptions concerning the nature of play, and at ISZL we see play as:

  • Child-initiated and personally motivated
  • Active and activity-based (rather than goal-based)
  • Creative and flexible but sometimes chaotic and unpredictable
  • Encompassing some form of an imaginary situation
  • Rule-governed – the rules arise during the play and outside of the play

When children play, they follow their own ideas and interests in their own way for their own reasons. When we watch children playing we may see them experiencing something that interests them, concerns them, excites them or scares them; we may see them trying to solve problems they have set for themselves, or we may see them communicating their feelings in response to something they have experienced

In play there is a sense of agency and ownership– the play is owned by the children, and the children have a purpose for their play; they have a reason for playing. "Play is what the learner chooses to do in order to address a need, answer a question, express a feeling, or follow up an interest" (Schmidt, 2011).

At ISZL we see play not as simply reflecting a child's developmental level, but as a "mechanism propelling child development forward" (Vygotsky, 1966). We recognise the value of make-believe play to academic learning through both the promotion of the development of abstract and symbolic thinking and the development of the child's ability to self-regulate their own social and cognitive behaviours.  

The development of symbolism occurs during play in an imaginary situation when children begin to use substitute objects in place of real objects, and actions and gestures in place of real actions – in the hands of the child a simple wooden block becomes a phone, an iron or a plane. This development of abstract and symbolic thinking underpins all later learning as children go on to develop the symbolic languages of literacy, mathematics, music, science and art.

Play becomes increasingly socially, physically and cognitively complex with age. We see the evidence of this in the use of signs and symbols, in the length of imaginative play, in the creation of rules and roles and in the increasing control of behaviour. Play becomes more organised, more focused and rule-bound. We see children taking on and sustaining a role, making, negotiating and following the rules associated with a scenario, and the play scenarios themselves become more complex, developing many themes and sometimes lasting several days or weeks. When we watch children play we see those dispositions considered essential for later learning such as planning and organisation, concentration, engagement, participation and reflection.  

At ISZL we recognise that in order to maximise the potential of play, we must be clear about the relationship between play and learning.  In the development of a playful learning environment, our teachers aim to create a balance between play initiated by children and play enriched by pedagogical strategies that extend and develop children's knowledge, skills and understanding in order to make connections between our curriculum goals and children's goals. These strategies may include a consideration of the resources available to the children – we place emphasis on using open-ended, flexible resources that promote curiosity and inquiry. We use careful observation and pedagogical documentation of children's play to unravel their current theories and understandings, and we use sustained, shared thinking to delve deeper into children's understandings.  Observation of play offers practitioners a window into children's learning, and the analysis of play can be used as a way of learning more about children's understandings of their world. Observation enables practitioners to validate the place of play in their classrooms, focus on what play means for children and extend the time available for play to develop and for the players to develop their skills and expertise. 

Through play educational goals develop around children's interests and motivations and ultimately the potential for learning is enhanced.
 

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