CHILD DEVELOPMENT: The POWER of play

21 April 2016
Reading time10 min

Want to create a clever, focused, intelligent, happy, balanced, switched-on child? Let them PLAY say the experts. Here’s why.

For a young child, the world is one big playground, with kids enjoying a hands-on approach to learning, discovering and exploring the uninhibited environment around them.

Once seen as nothing more than ‘child’s play’ (i.e. a toddler innocently making a mud pie or building a house out of sticks), experts across Australia and the world are now singing the praises for play-based education. They have identified that the most important tool for a child’s development and growth is right at their very fingertips.

Queensland University of Technology Faculty of Education, School of Curriculum lecturer Dr Rebecca English says that based on the Early Years Learning Framework in Australia (EYLF), the definition of play-based education is simply the act of leaving a child to independently play in an unstructured and unmanaged environment.

In the early years of a child’s life, play is seen to allow a young mind to explore the world, relationships, concepts and themselves in their imaginative games.

Dr English provides an example of incorporating play-based education in a classroom setting.

“If children are imagining a space ship, the teacher will ask about the colour of the ship, the size of the ship, who's on board or where it's going. From this, there is a great deal of learning that can be seen in the deep discussion and imaginative work of the play,” she says.

Dr English states that although she strongly supports play-based education as an important approach for early childhood and primary education, it may be seen by some parents as a waste of time with no means to measure its success.

“Many of us weren't allowed to play in the early years. We had letters of the week or this week's number to do, so for some of us, it's hard to see play as legitimate work,” she says.

“In addition, it can be hard to quantify the success of play. How do you measure good play? How do you manage play that is unsuccessful? What does unsuccessful play mean?”

On an international scale, Dr English says European countries, including Finland – where children don’t commence formal education until the age of seven – are leading the way as successful role models of how effective play-based learning should be implemented. Finnish students have been noted to be some of the brightest children in the world.

Developing and learning through play

Kathy Walker OAM, designer of The Walker Learning Approach (WLA), says as important and vital as numeracy and literacy is in a young child’s life, research shows that play-based learning is crucial in facilitating a young person’s social, cognitive and physiological development.

Created more than 25 years ago, the WLA has developed an educational framework that personalises a child’s learning experience, ensuring that their exposure to, and experiences and exploration of their world are tailored around individual interests, while allowing them to learn at their own pace.

On the premise that all teaching is intentional, Kathy says that importance should be placed on the process of learning and skill acquisition rather than the end result.

“Evidence shows that young children learn through active investigation and exploration. But there is confusion about what play-based education is and that through incorporating play, children won’t or are not being taught numeracy and literacy. But this is completely incorrect,” says Kathy.

“We don’t want to waste a child’s life or learning opportunities. It’s not just about free-play at school or just using Lego. It’s about creating an environment that sets children up to succeed, and by making their own independent choice on what or how they play with something, they feel like they have achieved something.”

The WLA has been picked up by more than 100 Queensland schools, which incorporate the learning approach into the current Australian Curriculum. Kathy says that early childhood teachers following the WLA framework create learning centres within the classroom for 45 minutes, four days a week. A learning centre may be a science area with microscopes or a nature area. A child then uses the material in the learning centre how they like, using their individual skills and imagination to create what they want to create.

Boosting the brain

University of the Sunshine Coast psychology lecturer and researcher Dr Rachael Sharman says play-based education should be introduced from infancy and be encouraged throughout childhood.

Rachael notes that this form of learning is important in mastering the developmental milestone ‘Theory of Mind’ which forms the basis of what most people understand as social intelligence.

“Play-based learning also helps the brain consolidate abstract and concrete ideas, for example, understanding that a cup of water poured into a different shaped cup doesn't actually change the property or amount of water – even though it looks like there is more water in a tall skinny cup compared to a short fat one,” she says.

“As children age, it is reasonable to include more and more structured and direct teaching, however Kindy and Prep should really be focused on play-based learning, with structural inclusions from grade 1 onwards. This approach tends to track nicely with normal brain development.”

Dr Sharman says from the age of six to seven years the brain will be more receptive to structure and direct teaching.

“Introducing structured learning too early makes about as much sense as teaching a two-year-old algebra. They won't be receptive and may end up developing a dislike for a topic or style of teaching that feels forced upon them.”

Incorporating play into the national curriculum

Sunshine Coast’s Ananda Marga River School principal Jenny Oakley says in recent years there has been an overscheduling of children and a significant decrease in the amount of play and freedom they have in educational environments.

“Our learning environment is one of love, where we treat children with respect and facilitate their learning in all areas – socially, emotionally, spiritually and academically. In our younger years we use play as the means of our academic teaching,” she says.

“Play really should follow the lead and interests of the child or children who initiated it. As soon as an adult tries to interpret or interfere in the play, it is no longer play, and children can lose some key learning’s from the interference.”

Sesame Lane general manager of operations Marnie Testa says the child care and kindergarten service they provide to Brisbane children has been designed to support and encourage a child’s natural desire to play.

She says that it is important for a young child’s surroundings to nurture their individual interests.

“Each child needs to be supported in environments that allow them to explore freely, to build the necessary confidence that encourages them to continue to explore. Through play-based learning they are exploring, challenging and creating as they build solid foundations for future learning,” she says.

“Our Kindergarten environments show more defined intentional learning opportunities as guided by the Queensland Kindergarten Learning guidelines, with a solid connection to the Early Years Learning Framework. Within these environments you are able to see more defined evidence of learning as children are encouraged to express their ideas.”

Gold Coast’s Kinder Cottage Child Care Centre director Alicia Coyte says there are different types of play-based learning and that it isn’t a one-size-fits-all educational framework.

“When children initiate play, they are more motivated to learn and develop positive dispositions towards learning,” she says.

“There are different types of play. Children may play on their own in solitary play or alongside someone else and independently in parallel play or with other children in cooperative play. Play may be structured where someone else makes the rules and decisions. Play may be unstructured, where the child is self-directed or takes all the initiative.”

The purpose of play

Not-for-profit community organisation Nature Play QLD has created a program with the sole purpose of encouraging children to spend more time in unstructured play outside and in nature.

Program Manager Hyahno Moser says that play is the internal mechanism built into childhood for kids to practise, learn, test and master the skills that they will need to grow into competent adults.

“Play-based learning is the foundation for many early childhood education programs, especially pre-primary school. However I believe there are areas of our education system where we need to improve dramatically,” he says.

“Child care and kindergarten are leading the way with play-based learning and meeting the child at their level of learning. However Prep, year 1 and year 2 have become less play-based and more academically focused over the past few decades. I believe we need to review the learning through play models for all age groups. I also believe too much is expected of children, the teachers and the education system.”

Early Childhood Teachers’ Association president Kim Walters says teachers have expressed their concern over what they believe is a lack of play-based learning in Prep classrooms. She says that due to the increase in formal education in Australian classrooms, the joy had been taken out of learning, increasing stress and anxiety among students and teachers.

Independent Schools Queensland executive director David Robertson says although the current Prep Curriculum does have more structure than the previous preschool program, he believes that the Australian Curriculum is flexible in its approach to producing the greatest outcomes for students.

“Queensland independent schools are required to implement the Australian Curriculum in the Prep Year. The Prep Year curriculum gives priority to building a child’s knowledge and skills in the critical foundation areas of literacy and numeracy – the key building blocks for learning,” he says.

“The value of the full-time Prep year in Queensland has been demonstrated not only through improved NAPLAN results but also parent confidence with 98 percent of Queensland students undertaking Prep prior to Year 1.”

Brisbane Independent School teaching principal Jennifer Haynes says their learning framework incorporates the Australian Curriculum, as well as including their own social-emotional curriculum, which places a high-level of importance on play-based education.

She says the school uses play-based learning as a core process in the Prep – 1 room through scaffolded play with a teacher or aide, small group explorations and resourced free-play, such as home corner, dress ups and the sandpit.

“Research clearly shows that playful thinking and undirected play build the skills for the future our children will live – skills in problem solving, creativity and working in teams,” Jennifer says.

“Kids can be at their most creative when they can explore playfully.”

Preparation for big school

Begin Bright CEO Tina Tower said due to the Early Years Learning Framework being solely play-based, she has seen a need to create a program which teaches children to be academically prepared for ‘big school.’

“If children start with no school readiness, it can be quite a shock and a steep learning curve. Some children will do just fine with that, but a lot will struggle and miss things and begin to fall behind,” she says.

“Now that the Early Years Learning Framework is all play-based, children aren’t getting much formal learning in preschool and day care so children are finding it hard once they go to school. Parents of children who struggle will usually then seek out a school readiness service so that their subsequent children don’t face those issues.”

No matter what side of the schoolyard fence you sit on when it comes to play-based education, experts believe that on an international scale, Australian educational standards are up there as being some of the best in the world. Though the proof may in fact be in the pudding – or in this case in the mud pie – that the simple act of child’s play may be more powerful than once thought when it comes to the growth and development of a young mind.

What do you think?

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Written by

Kerryn Anker

Whether it was writing as a young girl, interviewing family members or as a professional journalist, Kerryn has always been passionate about telling stories. These days she is kept busy with her 11-month-old daughter Saharna, who loves to keep her mummy on her toes. Aside from the rare quiet moments she is able to write, Kerryn also enjoys spending time at the beach with her family, good coffee and laughing with friends.

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