Learning through play is such an important topic right now, especially as play is being driven out of kindergartens, preschools, and basically childhood! When "academic standards" start to become the norm for children just barely out of diapers, play becomes a luxury.
But some of us aren't content with cultural norms.
Some of us, who are intent on following research and child development, know that play is not a supplement to learning for young children, but it IS learning. I've put together a big, hopefully amazing blog post for you about learning through play. You'll find lots of resources linked in this post, from My Little Robins and other sources.
What is Play?
Three Important Factors of Play
It's important that we're on the same page with the word "play" before we dive in. In 2008, Catherine Garvey published a paper through Cambridge University Press called "Play."
Garvey said, "Play is a range of intrinsically motivated activities done for recreational pleasure and enjoyment."
From this definition, there are three things that we know about play:
1. Play is driven by the child. Since play is intrinsically motivated, it isn't externally motivated. So, forced educational opportunities are NOT play.
2. Play is active. The word "activities" tells us that a child should be actively engaged in play. So, things like watching a playful television show wouldn't be considered play since a child passively takes it in.
3. Play is enjoyable. Play should bring on smiles and squeals of delight! If a child is not delighting in play then perhaps it isn't child-driven or a child isn't engaged in it.
Looking through research and academic articles about play, the definitions might vary a little, but one thing that is always present is the idea that play is voluntary. Play is not something that is forced on children.
Play is a Basic Human Right
The UN declared play to be a basic human right, something that is necessary for childhood. The UN Convention on the Rights of a Child says:
1.States Parties recognize 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.
2.States Parties shall respect and promote the right of the child to participate fully in cultural and artistic life and shall encourage the provision of appropriate and equal opportunities for cultural, artistic, recreational and leisure activity.
Play is so necessary that depriving them of it would be a Human Rights Violation.
What Play Isn't
The term "play" has been commandeered to mean anything that might possibly be fun for children. We see this in terms like "screen-based play," meaning video games, or "play-based learning," a popular term used in preschool settings. But the difference between play and a fun activity is whether or not it is child-led. The three points given above in the definition of play have to coexist simultaneously. We can't just pick and choose one aspect of play and then give the word to a vague shadow of the real thing. Play is driven by the child AND enjoyable AND active.
Video games may be child-led and driven by the child, but they are not active (I can hear my children building an argument for Wii!) We also know that screen-based play doesn't offer the same brain-building benefits as real-life play, but we'll dig into that in a bit.
When teachers prepare games for children and call it play, it is teacher driven and not child driven, missing one of the important aspects of play.
The Myth of Play-Based Learning
Play-based learning is sometimes actual play. Originally, play-based learning meant that a child self-directed their play and naturally learned from it. More and more, it has come to mean fun, teacher-directed activities, which we know is not really play.
This is an excerpt from a post I wrote a few years ago:
We have play-based learning all wrong.
“Children learn through play!” This idea is widely accepted but vaguely understood. We have these grand ideas of what learning through play looks like for our children, but I think that we too often miss the mark. Play-based learning has little to do with the opportunities we can create for children, and everything to do with them just exploring, just enjoying childhood."
You can read my post, We Have Play-Based Learning All Wrong, here.
Personally, I see Invitations to Play, a part of the Reggio-Emilia philosophy, as something that DOES fit into the play-based learning idea. Play can be presented as an opportunity and not something a child HAS to do in order to learn what the teacher wants them to.
Learning through play doesn't need to be hijacked by educational outcomes. If there are goals that a teacher or adult wants to accomplish, then it isn't play-based learning.
The Benefits of Play
Now that we've learned what play is and isn't, and why some play isn't really play at all, we'll back up a little and discuss what children learn through play.
Play helps children in their development, in these specific areas:
Cognitive development, or the development of the brain, occurs at the most rapid pace when children are 0-3. Many mistake this fact to mean that children should be filled with facts at that age, but that isn't developmentally appropriate. The developmentally appropriate way to make use of this rapid brain growth is to encourage play and exploration.
The cognitive benefits of play include increased memory and focus, practice with decision-making, and improving the ability to plan.
If you're familiar with executive functioning skills, you'll notice some overlap here and in other areas of play. You can find a research-based article on play and executive functioning skills here.
Play allows children to think through different situations and figure out how they will respond to them. They can also create situations that reflect how they currently feel. When our dog was attacked and had emergency surgery, my kids jumped into action putting together a veterinary office for pretend play. They gathered their stuffed animals and "fixed" them to process the scary emotions that they were feeling.
Play also helps children practice empathy as they are pretending to be another character. By putting themselves in someone else's shoes, they're experiencing what emotions that person might feel.
I am a long time proponent of play, especially outdoor play, as a way to integrate sensory input. The book Balanced and Barefoot was extraordinarily helpful to me in learning about this! As Sensory Processing Disorder rises in the US, play time, especially outdoor play time, declines.
Collaborative play unlocks a whole set of social development benefits for children. It helps them develop social skills, like how to make friends and communicate with others, as well as skills like problem solving, goal setting, following rules, and settling conflict.
Children develop their communication and language skills through play, especially by playing with others. They have to communicate with another child in order to establish the game being played, and they learn how to initiate conversations with others.
A study showed that 98% of 4 and 5-year-olds were creative geniuses. This number seemed so amazing that the researches followed the same group of students throughout their school career. By elementary school, on 30% of these children were creative geniuses. By high school, only 12% of these students were creative geniuses. (Source).
We know creativity is not only super important for future job markets, but I believe that we were born to be creative, just like our creator.
Imaginative play helps give children opportunities to practice their creativity, make new worlds, creatively solve problems, and test out new possibilities.
Learning is usually thought of as facts, but facts can't exist without a framework to lay them on. Play offers this framework.
Play In Young Children
Young children, ages 2-5, exhibit 6 types of play as explained by psychologist Mildred Parten Newhall. https://www.healthline.com/health/parenting/types-of-play
1. Unoccupied play- This type of play doesn't seem to have a purpose other than that the child enjoys moving around. Infants often engage in this type of play.
2. Independent play- A child who plays alone engages in independent play. This allows children to become comfortable with themselves and their own bodies.
3. Onlooker play- An onlooker watches what other children are doing, without engaging with them. I've often witnessed this play when children try to decide if a situation is safe, if they feel welcome, or if they like the play that's occurring.
4. Parallel play- When you see two children playing next to each other but not necessarily playing together, you're witnessing parallel play. This stage can often be observed in young toddlers, and leaves parents wondering, "Why don't you just play together!?"
5. Associative play- Young children who play together but aren't quite organized enough to have a common goal in their play are engaging in associative play.
6. Cooperative play- This is most likely what you think of when you hear the word "play." It involves multiple children playing together centered around a common goal. When children play family, store, or another scenario with rules, they're engaging in cooperative play.
Play in Older Children
The benefits of play don't go away as your child gets older. With older children play helps reduce stress and helps children work through emotions. The stages of play are less recognizable as children grow and mature. Instead of looking for stages now, you might want to recognize what types of play your older child is engaged in.
1. Competitive Play- Playing a game with rules and a winner is taking part in competition. This kind of play might happen on a team, during a board game, or in any type of game with rules that your child made up.
2. Constructive Play- Building anything is constructive play. This often happens with blocks, Lego, or train tracks. This kind of play helps children understand the laws of gravity and physics (i.e, why can't we make a Lego tower that is two stories high? Also, I'm sure someone can, just not my kids!)
3. Imaginative Play- Creating a fantasy world or scenarios allows your child to engage in this kind of play. You might see this in dress-up, a game of family, or playing with dolls.
4. Physical Play- Anything that involves a lot of movement is physical play. This could be a game where children are running around the house, playing catch, or riding bikes with neighborhood children.
5. Symbolic Play- Symbolic play is more abstract than the other types of play mentioned above. It might involve making music, or a piece of art.
Schemas of Play
Schemas are patterns that naturally occur in play, and help children in their physical development. You may think it's strange that your three-year-old puts all of their toys in a backpack and carries it around everywhere, but that type of play exhibits the schemas of transporting and enclosing.
Schemas of play
"Schemas of play follow a child's developmental stages. Young children, who learn through play, demonstrate different schemas or urges, through their play."
The Schemas of play seem to be constantly reworded and reworked, but here is one interpretation-
1. Enclosure/Container- This is a play schema where children place things inside of larger things. They might even enclose themselves in a big box or fort.
2. Position- Organizing things into a specific order is the schema of position. Maybe your child will sort the different things they found in nature. While using this schema, a child is laying the foundation for future mathematical and spatial skills.
3. Transporting- This is one that has bothered me in the past! I’m thankful that I can recognize it now as meaningful play rather than annoying behavior! Children showing this play schema like to move things from one place to another. In our house, I know that if a library book is missing, it has probably been transported in Miss H’s backpack!
4. Transformation- This schema, transformation, allows children to explore the properties of different things in nature. They put different parts and pieces together to make something new.
5. Trajectory- This is a schema that is definitely better outside! Children love to throw things: sticks, pine cones, and balls. Inside the house, throwing things can be problematic. But outside, this is such a fun way for them to develop their fine motor skills (while picking up a small object to throw) and their gross motor skills (when they throw the object.)
6. Rotation- A sweet little one, spinning around until he gets dizzy, is experimenting with the schema of rotation.
Schemas of Play in the Great Outdoors
Inspiring Creative Play
Creative play is one of the most beneficial types of play and as we saw above, it dwindles as creativity is sanded out by age and traditional schooling. Creativity is not something you're either born with or your not- people are born with creativity! It is either fostered or it isn't.
In 2017, I was inspired by a speaker who said that we were created to be creative, because we were made in the image of God. You can read my post about creative play here, but for now let's talk about 3 things that children need in order to develop creativity:
1. Time- Unstructured time is crucial for creativity. If every moment is scheduled, our children can't create new play situations or solve problems- even if it is just the problem of boredom.
2. Risk-taking- Risks can be something big like climbing a tree or mixing colors in an a paint pallet. Every time we have something to lose (safety, paint from the examples above) we are taking a risk. New things and ideas are not generate when children are forced to stay within set parameters. And now you have a whole new perspective on mixing Play Doh!
3. Interests- When a child shows interest in certain areas, we should cultivate their love for it. Their strong interest will inspire them to explore and create.
We were created to be creative.
"We assume a child either has creativity or doesn't, and forget that creativity has to be fostered."
A few years ago, people were abuzz with the news that many children spend less than an hour outside every day. But other studies show that even less time is spent engaged in outdoor play. Either way, this is less time outside than prisoners are allotted, and this seemed shocking to many parents. Source
Outdoor play reaps the benefits we discussed above, but has additional blessings. For example, children who play outside more often tend to have longer attention spans than indoorsy kids. They also have lower obesity rates. Source
In the book Balanced and Barefoot, the author, an occupational therapist, talks about the many physical benefits of outdoor time, including improved vision, balance, and sensory integration.
Because we're Charlotte Mason homeschoolers, spending lots of time outside is important to us. We are currently doing the 1000 Hours Outside challenge to help hold us accountable.
Read: Making the Most Out of Outdoor Play During The Early Years
My purpose for writing this post is to hopefully change the tide that has been washing over American (and other countries) education for the past couple of decades. Play is not the icing on the cake, it is the cake.