the importance of play

Home

 ‘Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.’

Albert Einstein 

In her book 'Learning through Play: Babies, Toddlers and the Foundation Years', Tina Bruce outlines twelve important features of play:

bullet

In their play, children use the first hand experiences that they have in life.

bullet

Children make up rules as they play, and so keep control of their play

bullet

Children make play props

bullet

Children choose to play. They cannot be made to play

bullet

Children rehearse the future in their role-play

bullet

Children pretend when they play

bullet

Children play alone sometimes

bullet

Children and adults play together, in parallel, associatively, or cooperatively in pairs or groups

bullet

Each player has a personal agenda, although they may not be aware of this

bullet

Children playing will be deeply involved and difficult to distract from their deep learning. Children at play wallow in their learning.

bullet

Children try out their most recent learning, skills and competencies when they play. They seem to celebrate what they know

bullet

Children at play co-ordinate their ideas, feelings and make sense of their relationships with their family, friends and culture

Without encouragement to explore their world through play, children are likely to develop difficulties in forming healthy relationships. Research on rats has shown that when deprived of play as babies, the result is disturbed behaviour when they become mature. Van Den Berg and a team of researchers isolated some baby rats for their fourth week and some for their fourth and fifth week of life. The rats were then taken out of isolation and caged in pairs. Some of the partner rats had also been isolated, whilst others had not. They found that those rats that were isolated for the two-week duration showed a reduction of social activity that was not altered even by partnering with a normal rat. However, the rats that were partnered with a normal rat after only being isolated for one week exhibited normal behaviours. The researchers concluded that there is a window of time within which the negative effects of isolation can be overcome through normal socialisation, but that extended isolation leads to irreversible effects on social behaviour.  

This research must lead us to wonder what the effects are on adult behaviour for children who are denied play opportunities in their formative years. You only have to watch a toddler play to see how elements of his real world give structure to his play. Sometime in their second year, children usually begin to engage in imaginative, or symbolic, play. A yogurt pot can become a telephone that is carried to mommy to be answered. A sandwich at lunchtime can evoke a game of ‘feeding the ducks’ and a bag of carrots can trigger a game where everyone in the family has to pretend to be a horse. This is the stage of play that Piaget labelled the ‘preoperational stage.’ 

This morning twenty-month old Susie is lining up her teddy bears to feed them. First she offers a plastic apple, ‘Yum yum’, then a drink of water, ‘Tup tup tup’. Next she offers a pretend bowl of oatmeal, ‘No, no, no, me don’t like!’ squeals the first teddy. The imaginary oatmeal ends up on the floor. Susie is working through a scene from breakfast time, when she had decided that she would prefer a banana to oatmeal. Mommy didn’t have any bananas. Susie had cried and thrust the oatmeal at her mother. She is still cross, and this game is helping her to process her feelings and make sense of what had happened. ‘B’na-na later,’ she tells teddy. 

Susie’s mother is paying attention and realises that Susie is working through the episode from that morning. ‘I know you were upset that I don’t have any bananas,’ she says, ‘shall we go to the store when you’re dressed to buy some for lunch?’ Susie beams a smile at her mother. ‘B’na-na later,’ she says. ‘Yes,’ laughs her mother, ‘we’ll have banana later.’ She validates Susie’s feelings and reassures her that it is acceptable to feel anger but that it is good to find a way to work through that anger and find a solution to the problem. 

If Daniel Goleman argues convincingly that 'Emotional Intelligence' is a more influential factor determining a child’s future than his IQ, then play has to be recognised as the cornerstone of  education for young children, because it is the one single activity that provides simultaneously for intellectual and emotional development.  In his book Building Healthy Minds author Stanley Greenspan describes ‘the six experiences that create intelligence and emotional growth in babies and young children.' In order to reach a level of ‘moral consciousness’, a child has to learn to connect ideas and understand that actions will always have consequences. Initially, a young child learns to simply understand that her actions have consequences that might affect her emotionally. For example, when Sandra is cross because another child took her bucket and spade in the sand, she knows that if she snatches them back and hits her friend, her teacher will not approve. The next level of understanding would be to realise, when the teacher points it out, that her friend would be upset if she hits him, although Sandra might not care too much! Beyond this level of thinking, which comes for most children between the ages of four and five, comes the ability for Sandra to put herself into the other child’s position and be able to control her reaction, and even scale her response to the situation according to her desire for a specific outcome. She might decide simply to take back the bucket and spade, which will annoy her friend but not cause a fight, or she might decide to take them back with a little push, just to get the message across that she’s upset. At this level, Sandra is making a conscious, albeit swift, decision about the level of response that she wishes to make in relation to the subsequent emotions that will be felt by the other child. Sandra needs guidance and consistent support to ensure that she learns to make responses that are appropriate to the situations that she encounters. She is developing emotional intelligence through her everyday experiences in play situations.

 Getting the balance right

 Experienced teachers learn to judge when to become involved in children’s play and when to simply observe and let children take the initiative. It can be tempting to over-organise or dominate the natural play in the classroom. A balance has to be achieved where structure and enrichment do not become control, and spontaneous play is allowed to develop. The classroom must offer a rich environment that stimulates and encourages spontaneous play. The teacher’s role is to observe, interact, and provide for the development and enrichment of play activities. Sometimes she will need to join in the game; at other times she will simply observe and make a mental note of how she might be able to extend the learning. Occasionally she will need to intervene to help children to manage their emotions or actions within the game. Through this sort of play children develop physically, cognitively, emotionally, and socially. 

It is therefore disturbing to read reports of how some schools are cutting back on the amount of time spent on play in the classroom, and that some are even cutting the length of recess to make more time for ‘teaching’. This is a serious mistake. It presupposes that learning for young children can be better achieved if it is ‘taught’ rather than facilitated. It completely overrides the basic truth that young children learn best through play. The intense pressures of testing can lead to demands being made for teachers to cut back on the amount of play that they provide for the children in their care. This pressure to reduce play opportunities should be strongly resisted. This is not to say, however, that the quality and type of play provided should not be carefully monitored through careful observation.

Time needs to be used to maximum effect, but ‘wasting time’ must not be confused with spending time on worthwhile non-academic activity! Children also need substantial periods of uninterrupted time to become engrossed in their own play. While this is happening, adult interaction can potentially become interference in learning, and the experienced teacher will usually be able to sense when to stand back and observe the play and when to become involved. This uninterrupted time is essential if play is to develop and grow into real long lasting learning. Getting the balance right by intervening in play at the right moments is vital. Making the judgement of what is the right moment is a skill that can take a lifetime to perfect. The important thing is that teachers are conscious of their motives for getting involved in children’s play, and assess the effect of such intervention. Being aware of the purpose for getting involved in play means that the teacher can make a better judgement about when it is a good idea to join in the children’s learning and enrich the experience, and when it is better to allow them to create their own adventures and follow them through to their natural conclusion. 

The balance between adult directed, adult initiated and child initiated activities needs to be carefully monitored, for the whole group and the individuals within it. Teachers need to be sure that new knowledge and experiences are systematically offered and reinforced, that new skills are demonstrated and practised, and that new opportunities are presented and discussed. They need to be aware that there is a danger that: 

bullet

the adult’s agenda will over-ride the need for children to play and experience things first hand

bullet

the rush and hurry of the curriculum will squeeze out the need for time committed to high quality play

bullet

the emphasis on evidence and testing will  result in children spending time completing worksheets for a file, rather than talking about their play

bullet

teachers will be affected by a  ‘top down’ pressure from colleagues who do not understand the importance of play for young children

It is important to remember that a ‘second hand’ experience, that is, an experience which is reported by another person, can never replace a first hand experience which involves all the senses, the whole body and ideally a supportive companion. It is important that teachers provide a balance of types of play, and that they also stand firm about its value and importance. This means that often teachers bear the responsibility for educating others about the value of play. This can be done by: 

bullet

Valuing children’s play by observing it, joining in, talking about it, praising good examples, telling parents about what happens and giving children opportunities to talk about it at plenary sessions and group times.

bullet

Working with managers to ensure that there is a clear understanding about the value of play.

bullet

Ensuring that all the adults join, value and observe play activities.

bullet

Giving public value to play by talking about it to parents and others, ensuring everyone understand its importance, photographing it and recording what happens.

bullet

Talking to colleagues who work with older children about play and providing them with examples and documentation to explain its importance.

bullet

Leading workshops where adults have to explore new concepts – and showing them that the best way for them to do this is through first hand play experience!

References:

Berg, C.L. van den; Hol, T.; Everts, H.; Koolhaas, J.M; van Ree, J.M.; Spruijt, B.M. (1999). Play is indispensable for an adequate development of coping with social challenges in the rat. Developmental Psychobiology, 34, 129-138.

Stanley Greenspan, M.D., ‘Building Healthy Minds – The Six Experiences that Create Intelligence and Emotional Growth in Babies and Young Children’, Perseus Publishing, 1999

Tina Bruce, ‘Learning through Play, Babies, Toddlers and the Foundation Years’, Hodder and Stoughton, 2001

Daniel Goleman, 'Emotional Intelligence - Why it can Matter More than IQ’, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 1995

Copyright © 2013 Nicola J. Call