Why Playing is Important in Learning
The freedom and creativity of playing can equip children for lifelong learning, as MARK POTTERTON explains.
A quick Internet search will reveal that play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination and dexterity, as well as physical, cognitive, and emotional strength.
Play is very important to healthy brain development. Scientists will also tell you that it is through play that children at a very early age engage and interact with the world around them.
Play allows children to create and explore a world they can master, conquering their fears while practising adult roles; sometimes with other children or adult caregivers.
Children master their world through play, and play helps children develop new skills that lead to enhanced confidence and the resilience they will need to face life’s challenges.
Free, undirected play allows children to learn how to work in groups, to share, to negotiate, to resolve conflicts, and to learn how to speak for themselves.
When play is child-driven, then children practise decision-making skills, move at their own pace, discover their own areas of interest, and ultimately engage fully in the passions they wish to pursue.
The powerful medium of play threads its way throughout all aspects of learning, supporting and encouraging the development of each feature. Without pressures to succeed or expected outcomes to conform to, play enables children’s natural immersion in a world of endless discovery.
Play can happen in glitzy state-of-the-art classrooms or under trees. It can happen with expensive Lego or with a couple of stones.
I still love play and playing and have learnt a lot about play through play. But not having too much formal training in learning and the role of play, the rest of this article relies heavily on a new book by Kathryn Peckham titled Developing School Readiness (Sage Publishing).
Play in lifelong learning
Within play, children are given the opportunity and safety to assume, explore and trial many roles and behaviours, opportunities and actions. Through play, children find an ownership of their learning, demonstrating many talents as their unique abilities are given the opportunity to shine.
As level playing-fields have little to do with background, class, race or social status establish, children develop emotional wellbeing and their self-confidence can blossom.
Within play, children experience many changing situations as new children join, ideas are offered and resources embraced. This allows children continuously and spontaneously to develop their imagination, adapting their course of action and solving new problems in situations that are not pre-subscribed.
Granted the freedoms that play is rich in, children imaginatively initiate and trial new ideas, using resources to represent imagined realities.
Without set agendas, in play children are able to approach situations from their own viewpoint. Trying out ideas repeatedly, they are informed by all the rapid successes and failures they experience to develop an intuitive approach to new situations.
Through play, children are given permission to be inquisitive, gaining new experiences and sensations first hand. With deep levels of involvement they can investigate whatever draws their interest for the time their curiosity needs.
In a playful environment, children are given opportunities to act out things they have seen and experienced in ways they can make sense of, for example through fairytale play.
Play offers children a safe place to experience uncertainty, to immerse themselves in other worlds and trial ideas without having to commit. Thereby they possibly come to terms with difficult concepts in their own lives.
As children become aware of others’ perspectives, the emergence of social play sees groupings form, disband and reform freely as the nature of the game or wishes of children dictate playing needs.
Social skills of sharing, communication and negotiation, as well as conflict resolution and self-regulation, are rehearsed to meet the needs of play as the specific skills of each child find a platform, encouraging new social links to form.
Self-control and tolerance are rehearsed as play involving mixed abilities and cooperative turn-taking allows being in control then handing it to another to be safely experienced.
Children are able to create play freely without the guidance or direction of adults. Able to carry out imagined actions to see where they may go with no expectations of specific end-results, play allows children freedom of direction to follow their enquiries.
Because play can be enjoyed alone, children also experience ease within their own company, developing the ability not to rely on others.
Play offers children hands-on opportunities to engage in practical investigations where the end product is not important; instead, practical elements of the journey can be freely enjoyed and explored for their intrinsic interest.
While a practical paint-mixing or ingredient-weighing may never result in the colours imagined or the correct recipe followed, the experience comes in the freedom to adapt plans and trial practical techniques as play takes many different tangents.
Play continually adapts and changes with new ideas and as children join or leave the activity.
Through these experiences children will adapt their thinking and actions, accommodating thoughts and opinions of others, managing limitations of the environment and resources as well as unexpected opportunities that present themselves.
Within the open arena of play there is no rigid path to follow and children experience first-hand that adaptability is both useful and successful.
Because play can be freely joined, left and come back to, children are given opportunities to ponder ideas and approaches.
With no requirement to achieve given outcomes, children can attempt something for as long as they are motivated to do so, returning to it once new perspectives have been considered. Opportunity to reflect will renew motivation and encourage fresh ideas, promoting a reflective approach to learning
As play develops, it demands an ability to consider multiple variables simultaneously—characters involved in a game, how storylines are evolving, and what objects are being used to represent—all the while playing a seamless role, communicating in character and offering plotlines to meet their own agendas while understanding the possibilities and limitations of the environment.
In play, children’s creative tendencies are enhanced, demonstrated and valued.
Taking any form or direction, children’s inventiveness and resourceful use of props add new dimensions while setbacks allow for creative solutions. With the ability to react creatively, no problem need derail the fun as these traits are recognised and celebrated.
Play allows children to continuously encounter new experiences in their environment. Through motivated and rapidly changing circumstances, children develop skills to draw on previous experiences, recognising similarities, all informed by previous actions and solutions.
Initiated and governed by its participants, this often follows familiar patterns as the interests of those involved drive repetition of required experiences, allowing practice of familiar patterns, problem-solving, and exploring links to the real world and their experiences within it.
I cannot overstate the importance of play in learning. Make sure that your own child has enough time to play!
Think about your own situation just for a moment. What do you think are some of the barriers for play to become fully embraced? Why are some environments better able to deliver play-based curricula than others? No marks! Have fun.
Dr Mark Potterton is principal of Sacred Heart College Primary School in Johannesburg.