Play. We think we all agree on what it is when we talk about it. But it has no agreed definition (Burghardt, 2011; Sutton-Smith, 1997), and unless we can describe what play is—and is not—we will struggle to describe how it leads to learning. We struggle to justify why it’s the basis of what we do. Until there’s solid evidence for what we believe, and we can articulate it to the community, play is going to continue to disappear from care and education settings, as it has been for several years (Elkind, 2007; Nicolopoulou, 2010).
Some evidence exists that play is very beneficial. It can improve primary school achievement (Marcon, 2002), promote health outcomes (Ginsburg, 2007), reduce crime in adulthood (Schweinhart & Weikart, 1997) and boost self-regulation skills (Barnett et al., 2008). Self-regulation early in life is predicted to decrease adult health problems, substance abuse and crime, and increase adult earning capacity, credit ratings and positive parenting in their own children (Moffitt & Caspi, 2001; Moffitt, Poulton & Caspi, 2013).
But what is it about play that makes it so beneficial? We don’t know that yet, but animal play behaviour provides some hints (Burghardt, 2011).
Play is child-directed. As soon as we control it too much, it’s no longer seen as play for children (Einarsdottir, 2005; Wing, 1995). Direct instruction is linked to later behaviour (Barnett et al., 2008) and emotional problems (Schweinhart & Weikart, 1997), so it’s crucial that children’s human right to play is always at the front of our minds (UN, 1989) when we attempt to extend their learning using, for example, sustained shared thinking (Siraj-Blatchford, 2009).
Play doesn’t have functional end goals for the player (Burghardt, 2011; Garvey, 1990). Play is initiated only for the enjoyment of the process (called ‘intrinsic motivation’). This is important to think about when we provide games with adult-determined rules and rewards (like most ‘educational’ apps). We know from learning studies that intrinsic motivation leads to more engagement and learning than extrinsically motivated activities, such as in apps (Habgood & Ainsworth, 2011).
Being enjoyable sustains children’s motivation to learn (Garvey, 1990), particularly when children are in control of how it happens. Don’t you learn more when you’re enjoying and directing your learning? Modelling that enjoyment when you’re learning is likely to rub-off on children (Colliver & Arguel, 2016).
One final, oft-forgotten characteristic of play is that it only occurs when basic needs have been met, and there is no insecurity or stress. Animals play-fight when there is no real reason to be aggressive—when they have eaten, slept and have free time (Burghardt, 2011). It is paramount, therefore, that children feel relaxed, protected and free from external pressures (like worried educators and parents). Educators must remain vigilant for increased pressure for academic skills at younger ages (Elkind, 2007; Ginsburg, 2007), and become articulate and thoughtful advocates for play. One way to do this is to have conversations with parents about how they believe their child is learning though play at home (Colliver, 2016). Another is to show parents evidence that when they use literacy and numeracy in daily home life, children become more interested in, and learn more about, those topics (Colliver & Arguel, 2016).
This week is Children’s Week, which recognises children’s talents, skills and abilities. Nowhere is this better represented than in their natural propensity to play. Let’s ensure their rights to play are maintained though our advocacy of its benefits and the vital role we have in encouraging and extending it.
References and further reading
Barnett, W. S., Jung, K., Yarosz, D., Thomas, J., Hornbeck, A., Stechuk, R., & Burns, S. (2008). Educational effects of the Tools of the Mind curriculum: A randomized trial. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 23(3), 299–313.
Burghardt, G. (2011). Defining and recognizing play. In A. Pellegrini (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of the development of play (pp. 9–18). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Colliver, Y. (2016). Mothers’ perspectives on learning through play. Australasian Journal of Early Childhood, 41(1), 4–12.
Colliver, Y., & Arguel, A. (2016). Following in our footsteps: How adult demonstrations of literacy and numeracy can influence children’s spontaneous play and improve learning outcomes. Early Child Development and Care, 1–16. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03004430.2016.1248958
Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR). (2009). Belonging, Being & Becoming: The Early Years Learning Framework for Australia. Retrieved from files.acecqa.gov.au/files/National-Quality-Framework-Resources-Kit/belonging_being_and_becoming_the_early_years_learning_framework_for_australia.pdf.
Edwards, S., & Cutter-Mackenzie, A. (2013). Pedagogical play types: What do they suggest for learning about sustainability in early childhood education? International Journal of Early Childhood, 45(3), 327–346.
Einarsdottir, J. (2005). We can decide what to play! Children’s perception of quality in an icelandic playschool. Education & Development, 16(4), 469–488.
Elkind, D. (2007). The hurried child: Growing up too fast too soon. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo.
Garvey, C. (1990). Play (Enlarged ed. Vol. 27). USA: Harvard University Press.
Ginsburg, K. R. (2007). The importance of play in promoting healthy child development and maintaining strong parent–child bonds. Pediatrics, 119(1), 182–191.
Habgood, M. P. J., & Ainsworth, S. E. (2011). Motivating children to learn effectively: Exploring the value of intrinsic integration in educational games. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 20(2), 169–206.
Hutt, S. J., Tyler, S., Hutt, C., & Christopherson, H. (1989). Play, exploration, and learning: A natural history of the pre-school. London, UK: Routledge.
Lancy, D. F. (2007). Accounting for variability in mother–child play. American Anthropologist, 109(2), 273–284.
Marcon, R. A. (2002). Moving up the grades: Relationship between preschool model and later school success. Early Childhood Research & Practice, 4(1), 1–24.
Moffitt, T. E., & Caspi, A. (2001). Childhood predictors differentiate life-course persistent and adolescence-limited antisocial pathways among males and females. Development and Psychopathology, 13(02), 355–375.
Moffitt, T. E., Poulton, R., & Caspi, A. (2013). Lifelong impact of early self-control: Childhood self-discipline predicts adult quality of life. American Scientist, 101, 352–359.
Nicolopoulou, A. (2010). The alarming disappearance of play from early childhood education. Human Development, 53(1), 1–4.
Schweinhart, L. J., & Weikart, D. P. (1997). The high/scope preschool curriculum comparison study through age 23. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 12(2), 117–143.
Siraj-Blatchford, I. (2009). Conceptualising progression in the pedagogy of play and sustained shared thinking in early childhood education: A Vygotskian perspective. Education and Child Psychology, 26(2), 77–89.
Sutton-Smith, B. (1997). The ambiguity of play. London, England: Harvard University Press.
Sylva, K., Melhuish, E., Sammons, P., Siraj, I., Taggart, B., with Smees, R., Toth, K., Welcomme, W., & Hollingworth, K. (2014). Effective Pre-school, Primary and Secondary Education 3–16 Project (EPPSE 3-16): Students’ educational and developmental outcomes at age 16. London, UK: University College London.
United Nations (UN). (1989). Convention on the Rights of the Child. Treaty Series, vol. 1577, p. 3. Geneva, Switzerland: UN General Assembly. Available from: www.unhcr.org/refworld/docid/3ae6b38f0.html.
Wing, L. (1995). Play is not the work of the child: Young children’s perceptions of work and play. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 10, 223–247.