A disturbing trend has been growing within our education system, one that is starting to bleed through into our home lives. Children are being focussed on academia and traditional learning at an increasingly early age, cutting down on the time they have to play and enjoy being children. The tension between play and direct instruction during the preschool years is as puzzling as it is very real. In the face of increased pressure for children to excel academically – in particular in maths and literacy – parents and officials are expecting pre-school and nursery programs to look like classrooms for older children. They believe that direct instruction is the best way to meet those expectations, with play falling into the ‘non-educational category’. But for children (and adults) play forms a fundamental part of our ability to learn about the world around us and comprehend complex issues and concepts.

Learning Through Play – Children

For children, their first experience of learning is through exploring and playing with their environment. Even babies have an inbuilt need to learn, and play nurtures this need and helps them make sense of the world. At this stage play can range from playing peekaboo with mum, shaking a rattle or sending cars flying down ramps. In the latter example, the child is learning that objects fall to the floor when they are dropped. In other words, they are learning about gravity. They might not know what it’s called at this point, but they are understanding the concept that things fall. You may see them experimenting with different objects, throwing them off the table to see how fast they fall. Through play children can practice physical movement, learn how to build structures and solve problems.

Play also lays the foundation for direct learning later on in life. At an early age children learn to make and practice new sounds, trying out their vocabulary with their friends and telling stories. Playing encourages them to communicate with other children and builds up those social skills essential for later life. Allowing your child to play in a variety of ways encourages choice (how do I pick which toy to play with?) and creativity (just because you think that truck should roll along the floor doesn’t mean it isn’t a great stacking toy) – skills they will need when they are older. In study into the effect of play on children’s learning, Lester and Russell concluded that ‘play creates a brain that has increased flexibility and improved potential for learning later in life.’ By encouraging children to think creatively and explore concepts only possible in play, you are in fact setting the foundation for a well-adjusted and flexible mind, capable of learning more than non-playing peers.

Learning Through Play – Adults

We are quick to think of children when we talk about learning through play, but it’s just as important for adults. In our adult lives, we focus so heavily on work and family commitments that we never seem to have time for pure fun – somewhere along the line we stopped playing. When we do carve out some leisure time, we’re more likely to opt for the TV or computer instead of engaging in rejuvenating play like we did as children. For adults, play has been proven to relieve stress, improve brain function, stimulate creativity and keep you feeling young.  Adults do take part in some forms of play, even if they don’t realise it.  Take team building exercises. Many of these ‘days away’ involve executives playing games or completing challenges in order to build or repair relationships with others and learn new skills, which they can then incorporate into their lives. This is just one example of adults learning through play.

If you have a child, this presents adults with a chance to learn to play again, incorporating themselves into their child’s imaginary world. It allows the adults to learn and understand their child’s body language and development, allowing them to give support where needed. But most importantly, playing with children as an adult teaches patience and understanding. The adult must learn when to take part, how to involve themselves and not to impose their understanding of the world onto the child, who is still trying to make sense of it. These skills can be transferred into everyday life, giving you a new perspective on your relationships.

The role of play in children’s learning is incredibly complex and there is still a lot we don’t know – but what we do know is that play works in concert with other factors to support children’s early development. As adults, play allows us to break down preconceptions, forge new relationships and learn new skills. Interacting with children’s play as an adult is just as important.


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