Why is play so important?

Why is play so important?

On Friday, May 20, I attended a fascinating symposium, run, and organised by DCU, titled ‘International Symposium on Play in Early Childhood Education’, chaired by Dr Sinead McNally. ‘This international symposium brought together leading researchers in play in early childhood education to share findings on the role of educators in young children’s play, on capturing children’s views of play, and on play for inclusive education.’  The keynote speakers were, Dr Angela Pyle (University of Toronto), Dr Jenny Gibson (University of Cambridge) and Prof. Victoria Simms (Ulster University).  My key takeaways from this symposium were that play is a right for children. There is something special about play. There are challenges and tensions around play. There is something intrinsically unique about play. Play is to be cherished and to be nurtured. Why is play so important for children, and what is actually happening for children in their play?

There are huge questions here for researchers, policy makers and for practice when we try to unpack some of the tensions and challenges in play. But as someone who worked in practice for many years with young children, I absolutely agreed with all these ‘takeaways’ about play. My philosophy around play whether it was indoors, or outdoors was always of the belief that play is special, unique to each child and very important for their creativity, learning, development and of course for their enjoyment and fun.

Dr Angela Pyle spoke about playful learning, that learning can and does happen through play and that through children’s play we can recognise and act on opportunities to support learning. In practice I can remember well-noticing children’s play, noticing what they were doing in their play, and I used my observation of this to inform the next steps in supporting their play and their learning. Angela spoke about, as a researcher for years, she was told that play was the work of children, if she got involved in it, it would ruin the play children were engaged in. There was quite a body of research that suggested that adults should not engage with children in their play. That in play children would solve their own problems and work out new concepts., Often playing outdoors more than indoors was just that, children were given the freedom to play without adult interruptions.

However, there is also a body of research that states that when adults support, engage/interrupt children’s play, they can recognise and act on opportunities to develop new concepts that children are working out through their play.  Adults/educators can insert ideas, suggestions, and provocations for play which build and expand on children’s ideas and interests. Of course, we know that play is not responsible for all the learning that takes place for children. But we do know that when learning is playful it does support many areas of children’s development.

Educators working with young children have unique insights into what children’s play is like and what is happening for children in their play. Educators who adopt playful learning, who work together with children, plan with children and develop environments both inside and outside based on playful learning, are not interrupting children’s play, but supporting it.

In the picture below, I came across this invitation for children to play at the foot of a local mountain walk. This is what I mean by a provocation, something which ignites children’s interest, and this was an invitation by members of the local community for children to sit and play. It demonstrates to me that play is valued. That we all have a responsibility, be we educators, researchers, or policymakers to promote play as a right for children and recognise its uniqueness.

why play is important

 

As I listened to Victoria Simms, she spoke about the importance of play and mathematical development in children. Her research was about supporting parents during the pandemic to encourage their children’s development through play. Victoria highlighted inequalities in children’s mathematical ability throughout the UK. She spoke about the multiple levels of influence on children’s development. Early years of mathematical competence, feelings about how you love maths and how enthused you can be about mathematics, can be a predictor of later achievement in maths. This level of achievement continues throughout children’s whole school career and can have lifelong implications. In practice educators can help address some of these competence issues, supporting children’s love of mathematics.

Taking the outdoors as an example, look around and see what opportunities there are out there, for counting, subtracting, and adding, and the number of stones in tubs or pots. Use the mathematical language. Use your loose parts outdoors to engage in conversations about what if, what if I took away one stone, what if I introduced two more objects? This is mathematical teaching in a playful way. Encourage children to drive their own learning by arranging objects in the environment to support mathematical thinking. Discuss the quantities of soil to fill the garden plot for planting, quantities of seeds to sow and the quantity of water needed for the plants to grow.

Educators can share this kind of playful mathematical learning with parents too, encouraging parents to become involved and drive home the possibilities of playful learning and mathematical literacy development. Affording children, the opportunity through these environments is critical as is the role of educators in guiding children’s play and mathematical competence.

The final speaker Dr Jenny Gibson spoke about being autistic and how you experience to play, perspectives of children and adults, in particular friendships and play in relation to children’s social development. Looking at social play as a way of developing early abilities to cope with uncertainty, the unexpected, and the novel in our environments. Jenny spoke about the importance of environments which support social development in children. Giving children opportunities to engage with each other, to play with their peers, younger children and older children.

When I was listening to Jenny, I thought about how the outdoors can be a great space for children to engage socially with each other. Through their play, they can be louder outdoors. They can move faster. They can experience what happens if they run down a slope and maybe bump into another child, and how they cope. How do they negotiate the conflict that might ensue? They can test their physical limits and resilience, try to run down the slope again and avoid bumping into other children. Develop friendships with other children. One child might invite another child to chase them or play a game, for example, ‘what time is it Mr Wolf’. Take turns in being the ‘wolf or the child’!

In my practice, this had often led to conflict and great examples of conflict resolution! I have observed children being skilled negotiators and protagonists and saw my role at that time to support friendships and resilience. Developing early abilities in conflict resolution, interactions, resilience, and play helps to support social development in young children.

At the end of these wonderful presentations, I came away with a renewed interest in children’s play. Reflecting on how I viewed and supported children’s play as an educator in the past and now as an early childhood specialist. I think about Aistear in particular what it says about outdoor play. Across all four themes ‘children will naturally explore and think when playing, outdoor play can positively benefit a child’s well-being as physical exercise can make a child as fit and healthy as they can be!

Have you thought about play recently, and considered your own philosophy on play and what children are telling us through their play?

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