Children play their way to learning
Children are masters of play. They can play anywhere – outdoors, indoors and in all environments, children can tap into their imaginations creating worlds of play. Play is one of the only things that all species have in common. Even in very difficult circumstances – in poverty, in war zones, children can be seen playing. We all know it and the research supports it – children are happiest and at their most vital and energetic when they play.
According to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, every child has a right to play. It is the child’s way of making sense of the world – a learning tool that engages, motivates, challenges, and pleases. Children are born with an innate drive to learn – they are smart, intelligent, and capable people who can do things, who know things and who are well connected with family and friends. Play gives them an opportunity to demonstrate all that they have observed and learned about the world around them and at the same time the opportunity to experiment with how they can make that learning useful.
Evidence from research
The most recent neuroscience or brain research confirms the power of play for brain development. The brain grows fastest in the first 5 years of life and the wiring of the brain makes multiple and complicated neuron connections that in many ways decide our future ability to learn, achieve and be happy. Play helps the brain to make these connections because it allows free reign to the imagination and consequently children can engage in new experiences, activities, roles, and relationships on an on-going basis. Play is not about completing one task at a time but about dealing with multiple tasks such as relationships, activities, problem solving, other peoples’ ideas and creating companionship and enjoyment, all at the same time. In this way, play strengthens and supports the connections between the neurons of the brain and provides a rich opportunity for children to grow and develop.
Play in Aistear and Síolta, the national curriculum and quality frameworks
The research is so clear about the benefits of play that in Ireland we have established play as central to the early childhood Curriculum Framework, Aistear. Both Aistear, the national curriculum framework from the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, and Síolta, the national quality framework from the Early Years Policy Unit, emphasise the importance of play in the home and in early education settings. Aistear tells us that engaging in play is good for children’s health and well-being. It is a way of creating community so that children develop a sense of identity and belonging. It is a way of communicating and exploring and thinking.
Play in early childhood care and education services
Children need relationships, time, space, and materials to play. In preschool settings, we think about:
- How we plan the play environment. Does it encourage child-led play where children choose where they play, and with what and who they play with.
- They have easy access to props and materials that they can use to develop their ideas, experiment, design, build, create stories and stretch their imaginations.
- Adults are there as an additional resource. They offer help and guidance when required and use the many opportunities that a playful environment offers to promote play & learning.
When you walk into a playgroup setting where children are learning through play you will see them play with sand, water, bricks, paint, puzzles, books. They will be talking, laughing, reading, writing, building, dancing, singing and most of all they will be pretending – pretending to be a mother or father or child, pretending to be a builder, an engineer, a shopkeeper, a hairdresser, learning from one another and showing us all how competent they are and what they have learned about the world around them. For this reason, Vygotsky (1933) tells us that in play the child is a head taller than him/herself.
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