Play based learning

Why is play important?

Play is the way in which children naturally learn. They learn most effectively when they are relaxed and having fun. Children’s learning becomes meaningful when they are free to learn at their own rate and in their own way. It has previously been thought that formal teaching and teacher directed work is the most efficient way for children to learn and that play has little value. Research shows us that a work-oriented, rigid approach to learning is not likely to help children develop a love of learning or provide the skills and attitude they need to be life-long learners. Tension and anxiety caused from highly structured teaching has been shown to actually inhibit learning.

What are the benefits of play?

  • Play enables children to develop all their skills – and as children develop so does their play.
  • Play provides opportunities to improve small and large muscle skills and maintain physical health.
  • Play helps to develop imagination and creativity provides a context in which to practise social skills, acts as an outlet for emotional expression and provides opportunities to understand value systems.
  • Providing for play includes ensuring that the child has opportunities, resources and time for play appropriate to each child’s stage of development.
  • Long periods of uninterrupted play build children’s concentration and the inner motivation to take responsibility for their own learning. A positive sense of self is the most powerful tool for all learning.

When children play, they

  • Explore and develop understanding of their world – natural and social
  • Develop and practise social, language and literacy skills
  • Experience and begin to understand difference and diversity
  • Expand and challenge their physical skills
  • Experiment with new ideas including symbolic competence required for formal learning
  • Enhance their self-confidence
  • Think and express themselves creatively
  • Respond to experiences with or without language
  • Develop their sense of self and identity

What is play-based learning?

A play-based program does not mean that children just do what they like all day. In a play-based program there will be times when children come together as a group, listen when others are talking, follow the rules of group living and begin to take responsibility for their actions and their  environment.

Children are offered choices that reflect their developmental stage. The choices are determined by adults and are provided within limits of safety and within the group setting. In practical terms, a play-based program gives emphasis to encouraging children to express their own ideas in play – to represent their world in order to understand it better. In the process of representation, as they play with others, children’s language and social abilities are fostered. They are encouraged to think flexibly and creatively as they seek solutions to problems and conflicts; they share their understandings with others and explore and experience the content associated with all the learning areas.

What does play look like?

The play of young children includes many different types including sensory, explorative, physical, creative, symbolic, role and dramatic play and games with rules.

  • Children may play on their own in solitary play; alongside someone else in parallel play, or with other children in cooperative play
  • Play may be structured, where someone else makes the rules and decisions
  • Play may be unstructured, where the child is self-directed or takes all the initiative.

What can children learn in play?

  • Positive attitudes of self-motivation and self-direction
  • Self-confidence
  • Cooperation and group values
  • Curiosity and risk taking
  • Problem solving, persistence and concentration
  • Language skills, literacy and numeracy.

These are all qualities that motivate lifelong learners but are difficult to invoke if not self-discovered when young.

What is the adult’s role within a play-based program?

Within a play-based program, the adult’s role is to guide and extend but not to dominate or dictate. Adults continually evaluate children’s play to discover what it is that children are learning and then help shape and extend this learning. This involves adding materials (child initiated or adult supplemented), using questions to expand the play, interacting, participating, consolidating, observing and monitoring the play. The result is children learn to think and can follow through with their ideas, discussions and negotiations. These skills transfer to working independently and in groups. Children develop inner motivation and readily take responsibility for their own learning, so are equipped for higher learning and life skills. As staff work with individuals and groups, they are constantly gaining knowledge about each child’s particular likes, dislikes, strengths and areas that need developing. This enables staff to respond to children’s individual learning needs. Parents are a great source of specific information about their child’s interests and abilities and are encouraged to share this with staff. Parents are kept informed about the program, children’s progress and current educational issues through discussion, newsletters and display board presentations. The most important play for young children is play with parents – make sure you make some time for play every day.

We can support children’s play by

  • Allowing for extended periods of time for children to remain in ‘the flow’   of their play
  • Providing resources such as safe household items and materials
  • Making enough space to focus on the play activity
  • Catering for choices of activity, materials and equipment
  • Role-modelling, directing or co-playing to encourage and extend ideas
  • Challenging them with more complex thinking, novel ideas or experiences
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