December 08, 2016

#5for5 campaign: Why learning through play is vital for young children

Children can develop many skills, including problem-solving, through play

Photo credit: Theirworld

Elaine Hunter

Early childhood development writer

In the latest of our series on aspects of early childhood development for Theirworld's #5for5 campaign, we look at the importance of learning through play.

Every child needs to play to develop properly. Without it, they cannot reach their full potential. It’s the work of childhood. 

“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning,” said the Fred Rogers Center for early learning. “But for children, play is serious learning. Imaginary play helps children develop some necessary survival skills.”

Play is important for many reasons. For babies and toddlers, responsive communication and play are a serious business, laying the foundations for formal education. 

The first years of life shape a child’s future into adulthood. This is when the most significant brain development happens, particularly in the first two years of life. Lack of play and communication, known as "under-stimulation", can have long-term negative consequences on a child’s learning and physical and mental health.

Simple games such as stacking and knocking over blocks teach toddlers critical pre-maths and pre-science concepts, including shapes, gravity, balance and counting. 

Play develops motor skills and helps children learn communication, socialisation and problem-solving, and expands creativity, according to a report by the Global Business Coalition for Education

The LEGO Foundation aims to improve the understanding of the value of play

Photo credit: Facebook/LEGO Foundation

Missing out on critical communication, early learning and play due to an humanitarian emergency can significantly impact a child’s brain architecture and ability to learn basic skills. And that can have a big effect on children getting into school and succeeding in the classroom.

Children learn so much through play - such as what sinks and floats; mathematical concepts, including how to balance blocks to build a tower; and literacy skills, such as trying out new vocabulary or storytelling skills as “acting out” different roles. 

They are also learning about fun – and how important that is in life. 

Hanne Rasmussen, CEO of the LEGO Foundation, said: “Both in the formal education system and in the homes of children, the focus on the value of play is rather limited. 

“That’s really something we want to work on – to improve the understanding of the value of play and what play really can do, where more and more it is squeezed by a desire both from the formal system and from parents that children should learn specific literacy and numeracy quite early. 

"In the early years – and that’s up to around eight – a play-based methodology makes a lot of sense.” 

As children spend most of their young lives with their parents, it’s crucial that the parental bond with their babies is positive and nurturing; and play is a way of strengthening it. Stimulation and interaction are especially important in the first two years. 

Psychologist Sue Gerhardt, author of Why Love Matters, said: “Parents who are tuned in to their babies and toddlers’ emotional states help the child to become aware of them. 

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“With adult help, they slowly learn how to manage their own feelings and to reflect on them. These experiences are written into the brain as the medial pre-frontal cortex connects and develops. 

“In conditions of poverty, many parents are so stressed that they are less able to pay sensitive attention to their babies and toddlers.  

“So, we have to reduce poverty in order to improve parenting and improve the prospects of poor children. 

"Or, perhaps an easier target, we have to find ways to support parents of babies and toddlers better so that they can give their children the attention they need for good brain and emotional development.”

With so many other challenges facing young children in developing countries, the importance of play has not been a top priority - other issues like nutrition, safety and protection come first.

However, in some cultures, play for young children is considered more important than education. Play lays the foundations for formal education. It develops motor skills and helps to develop communication, socialisation, problem-solving and creativity.

In Chile children typically do not learn to read, or even begin working with the full alphabet, until around five years old.

“Early childhood education has not, in Latin America in general, been thought of as education,” said Catherine Snow, an expert on children's language and literacy development at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. 

“The approach is: let the kids play, get them used to being in groups and we’ll worry about teaching them starting in first grade.

"But then in first grade, the expectations for progress are suddenly very high and none of the preparatory work has been done. Kids kind of get dropped into the deep end.”

The hands-on approach to books in the Peñalolén classrooms is part of Un Buen Comienzo (“a good start”), a programme designed with guidance from Snow and Harvard colleagues.

International bodies, such as the United Nations and the European Union, have also begun to consider and develop policies concerned with children’s right to play, with the educational and societal benefits of play provision and with the implications of this for leisure facilities and educational programmes

Play gives children the chance to express themselves while learning

Photo credit: Theirworld

10 facts about the importance of play

  1. Play lays the foundation for literacy. Through play children learn to make and practise new sounds. They try out new vocabulary, on their own or with friends, and exercise their imagination through storytelling.
  2. Play is learning. Play nurtures development and fulfils a baby’s inborn need to learn. Play takes many forms, from shaking a rattle to peek-a-boo to hide-and-seek. Play can be done by a child alone, with another child, in a group or with an adult.
  3. Play encourages adults to communicate with the children in their lives. Adults support play by giving children the opportunity to engage in play, by knowing when not to intervene, and by knowing when to intervene.
  4. Play gives children the chance to be spontaneous. You may think your child should be rolling the truck on the ground but that doesn’t mean that truck is not equally useful as a stacking toy.
  5. Play gives children choice. Having enough toys or activities to choose from will allow children to express themselves.
  6. Play gives children space. To practise physical movement, balance and to test their own limits.
  7. Play gives adults the chance to learn how to play again. One of the most challenging parts of play is incorporating yourself in it.
  8. Play allows adults to learn their child’s body language. Knowing when you should incorporate yourself in your child’s play is key.
  9. Play teaches adults patience and understanding. If you do choose to join in your child’s play make sure that you do not try to take it over and force incorporation of your ultimate learning objectives into their play. Structured adult-led activities have their time and place but remember to allow for time for children to control and decide their own play.
  10. Play is fun. Learning to play well, both by themselves and with others, sets children up to be contented and sociable.

Source: National Literacy Trust (UK)

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