Let us play
The Coronavirus has impacted all our lives for a long time now, affecting us all in different ways. The longer it continues, the longer many of our children are missing out on quality social interaction with their peers during unstructured free-choice play, causing concerns over their physical, developmental, and mental health. The Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) promotes play as a central activity in children’s learning, raising the key issues of how children learn through play; the benefits of learning through play, and the understanding and role of the practitioner in supporting play-based learning. However, an increase in pressure for a recovery curriculum means that children may be denied the benefits of play, contributing to a rise in issues such as behavioural problems due to a lack of interest and motivation. As such, there are calls for prioritisation for play over academic learning, once the Lockdown eases.
So, why is play so important, if not essential?
First and foremost, children have the right to play, as outlined in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), which encourages equal opportunity, and the Charter for Children’s Play (2007), which states the responsibility of the early childhood professional to respect children’s play rights and needs. The EYFS framework reflects this by providing a play-based curriculum, where prominence is given to meeting the needs of individual children through play and socio-cultural exploration, to enable them to develop as independent, intrinsically motivated, and powerful learners. The Characteristics of Effective Learning (COEL) within the EYFS are also a key element in depicting how children learn from their environment and experiences. Through play, children demonstrate the COEL through good attitudes to learning, curiosity, willingness to ‘have a go’, determination, persistence, and concentration.
How do children learn through play? Here are just a few examples:-
Problem-solving – developed through play as young children expand their social skills and explore boundaries.
Creativity – expressed and generated through exploration and the provision of open-ended materials.
Trial and Error – children experiment with cause and effect by manipulating objects in play.
Mastery – The desire to explore and learn which is inherent in children’s play, in order to experience task-orientated personal accomplishment.
Making Meaning – A motivational component relating to the child’s own needs within which they see purpose and relevance.
Higher-Order Thinking – Metacognitive processes established through effortful, problematic, or creative playful experiences.
Reordering and construction of new knowledge (Cognition) – new knowledge is gained through effective learning experiences that involve active participation, interaction, questioning, discovery, exploration, reflection, and the individual construction of meaning, all of which can be achieved through play.
Prior Experience (Cognition) – Children bring existing knowledge and experiences to their play, making new interconnections and unifying experiences to create assimilation.
In an ideal world, young children should learn through continuous play-based learning at their own individual pace, irrespective of the demands of the curriculum. The knowledgeable practitioner understands how children learn, prepares learning experiences which the children can relate to, identifies the learning taking place through effective observation, and extends that learning through the children’s interests. Knowledge of their interests is obtained through positive, respectful, and ongoing relationships with the children and their families. The practitioner is then able to step back and observe children at play to consider purposeful questioning or suggestions to scaffold the learning, which has a positive effect on the children, allowing them to be engaged in purposeful and meaningful play-based learning experiences within which they are genuinely intrinsically motivated.
Personally, I believe that young children’s play provides the attribute of learning without realising, recognising that learning occurs more effectively through trial and error. Children develop through play in terms of their physical, social, emotional, behavioural, intellectual, communication and language development. This can be observed daily within the setting where children continually implement these skills through cooperation and negotiation with other children within their play. But I think the most important element of play, in respect of the current situation, must be the benefit to their social and emotional well-being. Within play, children can re-interpret their experiences and move in and out of reality, experiment with their feelings, and learn how to manage their emotions. As practitioners, we can then support their thought process through sustained shared thinking by discussing any sensitive dilemmas which might emerge. If these sorts of issues are given priority, hopefully, the academics will follow more smoothly. Maybe this is an opportunity for higher key stages to re-think curriculum delivery and incorporate the academic side within playful activities? Think about what could be achieved if we just let them play.