There always has been (and probably always will be) debate over how best to teach children. In the past, children have been expected to sit quietly and copy from textbooks and chalkboards, and in the future, we think that they might be working their way through the curriculum wearing virtual reality headsets and using technology.
But, for now at least, the argument is focused on the benefits of play when it comes to learning. So, what is learning through play? And why do some experts think that we should get kids out of the classroom to do more of it? Let’s take a look…
What is learning through play?
Learning through play simply means letting children do what comes naturally to them – playing – and using it as a means of educating them. It moves away from strict ideas around rules, routine and ‘instructional’ learning, and focuses more on letting children explore their environment and stretch their imaginations.
Playing can include things like imaginative role play, acting out scenarios using props and toys, arts and crafts projects, as well as other things such as ‘messy’ play (including finger painting and sploshing around in paddling pools).
Lego, (the brand behind the famous ‘Lego’ blocks that so many of us have played with) have gone one step further and have actually identified five ‘types’ of play. These include physical play, symbolic play, play with objects, play with rules, and play with pretence, arguing that each of these develops a variety of key skills that are vital for a child’s education.
What are the benefits of learning through play?
There are lots of benefits to learning through play. This article in the Guardian explains that experts at Cambridge University have found that children display a boost in their narrative and writing skills when playing, as well as enhanced interaction and cooperation skills. And, while more research needs to be done to understand the precise science behind the benefits of play, it’s well-known that imaginative play enhances a child’s capacity for empathy and compassion, as well as improving their creativity, confidence and social skills.
How much play happens in UK schools at the moment?
Typically, learning through play does happen in the UK, but mostly just in the Early Years Foundation Stage. This is a stage in a child’s educational journey that stretches from birth to the time that they’re ready to begin primary school, drawing on lots of different tools and methods to help mature a child’s mind and abilities in the early years of their development.
Some people argue that the time spent playing is far too short in the UK, and that children would fare better if they were allowed to play well into key stage 2.
Why do people fear putting play in the centre of the curriculum?
Governments, and anyone else responsible for writing and delivering the national curriculum, have been reticent to put play centre stage in learning. The biggest fear is that doing so will give their child a disadvantage later in life by being ‘behind’ other nations in the world, and that it’s critical that children start formalised, instructional learning as soon as possible so that they achieve higher grades when they’re older.
However, there’s evidence to suggest that these concerns are unfounded, and worse, that this attitude does more harm than good. Research has shown that early formal literacy lessons don’t make children better readers by age 11, and that it could in fact even put children off reading altogether.
So, which countries already understand the importance of play?
Countries such as Sweden and Finland have excellent educational systems and understand the need to let children play for as long as possible before introducing them to formalised lessons. Both countries score more highly for academic achievement than the UK, and boast higher child-wellbeing too, despite children not starting school until they’re seven years old.
But, don’t expect to see the UK putting play centre stage for older children any time soon. However, it’s exciting to see that there’s research, conversation and campaigning happening around the idea.