If you have been doing research on alternative education then chances are you have come across the term ‘learning through play’, but what does it mean and is it another ideal that is better in theory than in practice? Learning through play is the concept that children’s minds develop while they are actually playing games not just while sitting in the classroom. The learning through play movement is all about providing children with opportunities, time, and space to simply play either alone or with other children and it is by often these simple games of mums and dads or building boats from leaves and sticks and sending them down the river that children are developing not only social awareness and boundaries but also inquisitive minds. By trial and error in their play, they are learning for themselves what works and what doesn’t. If children are given enough time to play, not just twenty minutes here and there, but longer periods of time to fully develop their game and to get into it you will see the intricacies that start to occur in the rules or storylines they will often place upon their games. This is their active mind’s hard at work! The term ‘play’ these days has been made to sound like a frivolous pursuit, something to do only as a reward when real work and learning is done, so it is no wonder parents and teachers can often shy away from letting children have large amounts of free play time. The idea that children can actually be learning valuable skills and lessons from playing seems a little airy-fairy but below we’ll go into a little more detail about this concept so you can see for your self the benefits that letting your children play can really have.
Free play is what most adults think of as just being kids leisure time and what they will naturally do if left to their own devices, not necessarily something that is educational or giving them any kind of learning experience. With free play, we are talking about kid’s games of mummy’s and daddy’s, shops or general games of make-believe. Also within this category comes making things, building their own forts and cubbies, setting up villages or creating their own rules for a game of tag. These are the kinds of activity’s that without a lot of toys around and while left in a group or on their own kids will naturally gravitate towards. Not much to it, you may think, but let’s take a closer look at what kids are really doing when playing these games.
With a classic game of mummy’s and daddy’s we often see children mirroring what they have seen at home. Many of their phrases may often be direct sentences they have heard their parents say either to themselves or to their siblings and their ideas of bedtimes and what is good and bad are learned from their own experiences. In this game, the children first need to decide who is who. This can lead to arguments and who is the baby or who wanted to be the mum, if you sit back and don’t interfere you will most often find that within five minutes the kids will have sorted this out on their own and that there is a lesson in compromise. Having the ability to all plead their cases then come to an agreement is them learning and putting into action a wonderful skill. So many times as parents we are called to step in and solve a problem, while yes sometimes an adult voice of reason is needed, a lot of the time if given space the children will learn to do this amongst themselves.
Playing shops is another great example of a game where children are mirroring what they see in society but is really much more than that. It is children’s first look into the world of money and the worth of things. Yes, one mud cake may be worth five gum leaves and children may not have their math right just yet but it is still an introduction into the concept of paying for something and also realizing that things get made by someone are have a certain worth. Small games like these are how children prepare for the real world in their own way. If you allow children to develop these games and support them by perhaps helping them make a better shop set up it is often not long before they are putting more time and effort into the things they are making to sell and it where some kids develop a real entrepreneurial streak and want to take things to the next level of creating things they can sell for real money.
Within make believe games like these, another skill they are learning is the wonderful art of storytelling. There may often emerge on from the group who has a stronger love for this than the others and they will direct the play. Sometimes these children are referred to as bossy but often they are just brimming with creative ideas they want to put out there. If gently directed and reminded to listen to others suggestions and take them on board this can really help children grow their creative thinking skills and leadership skills. Imagination based games are so important in developing and expanding children’s minds by allowing them space where their stories are not ‘lies’ they are just stories and they can be their own heroes.
The other kinds of free play children will gravitate towards are the more scientific side of making or building things. For example, give them a few cardboard boxes and just see what they will do with them. Sometimes making games and story-based games will beautiful intertwine and children make homes for their characters or various pies in the sandpit for their shop and other times the game will simply be about making something or testing something out. Put a few kids down my a little stream (supervised of course) and watch how they will almost always try to make some kind of vessel to race down the river. Let them play this game for a while and you will see them trying to improve their raft. This is a science lesson in its self. They are using trial and error to come up with the best way to make the fastest and most stable ship. Just think about all the working out they must be doing! When you start to look at their games in this light all of a sudden you can understand their reluctance and sometimes stubbornness to leave a place as soon as you call them. We can take this as them not obeying orders and being naughty but have a think about how involved they are in what is essentially ‘work’ to them. A seemingly simple game like these is their exploration of the world and themselves.
These games give children a wonderful sense of independence that is important in boosting their self-esteem. Believing they can be the dad or the shopkeeper, that they are capable of building their own house will help them gain confidence in their own self.
Remember certain games will often have different leaders, some games may seem like they are all about one kid having their ideas put out there but the other children are learning too, how to takes turns how to listen to instructions and also how to assert their own ideas.
Structured play is a combination of free play with a little help often from a parent and teacher with the main goal being to learn a specific thing. Ideas for structured play can be taken from what is around you at the time or interest your kids may have in something. For example, if kids become fascinated by a kind of sap on a tree then you can turn it into a research game for them. Help them out with looking into books or online about the sap, suggest they collect samples and compare them to other trees sap. Simple little interests like this can turn into wonderful experiences where the kids are getting to use research skills and also by supporting them in this quest for knowledge you are telling them that it is good to show curiosity at the world around them.
Another great example is something of a teacher with their school group. One day after a storm she took a group on a walk around the park, as they wanted to look at the damage. There was a lot of fallen tree branches which the kids instantly started to play with, on suggested they would make a great cubby. So instead of going back to class, the kids spent the next three hours build a huge fort. On the outside this could have looked like the teacher having a lazy day off, letting the kids ‘run wild’ but in fact by her sitting back and only helping with some heavier lifting when instructed, the children created an amazing fort. After a while natural leaders emerged. Children who understood how things should be built structurally, other kids who were happy to be the laborers. There were only a few disagreements but when left to themselves the children worked these out and all worked together to create something amazing. At the end of this, the teacher got each kid to write about his or her experience. And in every child’s writing is was apparent the sense of achievement they felt and the sense of comradely they had now with their fellow classmates. They talked about how clever certain kids were for suggesting this or that, they mentioned about how fun it was to create something together. So you can see how seemingly normal ‘play’ can actually be lessons in science, creativity, design, and in emotional intelligence by offering them team building skills and communication skills and a sense of importance and self-worth.
Play with educational toys
Another way to promote play can be in the kinds of toys or games you give your children. Some children can make a game out of a box of dice, sorting them into colours, teams or turning them into a family if they have that kind of imagination while other children need things to be a little more true to life. Think about the toys you are letting your kids play with and watch the kinds of games they do play with them. These days there are wonderful toys available for babies upwards that can help them sort colours and use fine motor skills. Or beautiful dolls houses where they are able to rearrange things the way they want them. Take a look at what your child tends to do with their toys and see what other things you can get them so they can pursue their interests. Some kids can become so immersed in Lego, in the building the designing and the technical details. This is work!! And this is learning. So help them expand on that, as they get older provide them with building kits and sets to help them pursue that interest. Some children are far more story play based so help them out with providing them with toys that can be versatile, that can be a lot of different things to them.
There are also wonderful board games and games you can play as a family that can really get children’s minds going as well as adults. Games of strategy or ones to get your creative brain ticking.
Do try this at home
Now we’ve talked about the different ways you can encourage children to play and how you can assist in promoting this and being supportive of their various games the only way to truly test this theory is to try it out. Take the time to watch your kids at their play and see their strengths or what they are most drawn to and help bring that out in them. Go through some of these ideas and gently encourage them in your own household and see for yourself if overtime they are benefitting your children’s minds. Happy playing!