The Importance of Learning through Play

Most parents, carers, early learning practitioners and teachers would agree that play and learning through play is hugely important. But the ways in which educational practitioners approach and encourage learning through play vary greatly according to the cultural and philosophical context in which they are operating.

A parent observes first hand how their child develops – the mud pies, the water play, the sand castles. My own (instinctive?) approach and philosophy has been to interfere as little as possible in what my child was doing, or exploring (within the bounds of safety, of course). In that sense I probably belong to that group of facilitators who value what is known as ‘child-led’or ‘free play’.

According to Open Learn’s Essay “The role of play in a child’s learning”: “Free play is generally understood to be those play experiences that children choose for themselves and that involve minimal adult intervention. The term ‘free play’ is a bit of a misnomer, however, as no play is totally free. All play experiences are structured to a greater or lesser extent by the resources available, the people involved and the context”.

Play Therapy United Kingdom defines play as “A physical or mental leisure activity that is undertaken purely for enjoyment or amusement and has no other objective”. Therapeutic play therapy may help children learn to come to terms with with anxiety, nightmares, bullying, bereavement, phobias or divorce. Play has also been used in war, conflict and situations of abuse where children have seen or experienced extreme forms of violence. It may enable a child to survive an extreme situation. In that sense, play can (quite literally) save lives.

In the past, children might have played ball and all kinds of imaginary games in their street, almost every day. Nowadays, many families can’t play in their communities (especially in urban communities) in the ways they used to. A loss of green spaces, too much traffic and changing work patterns mean that access to nature is more restricted and fears for children’s safety have transformed play. Sue Palmer has painted a graphic picture of play challenges like these in her books: ‘Toxic Childhood’ and ‘Detoxing Childhood’ – explaining how these factors affect the quality of children’s play, how much they learn through play and what we can do about it.

The importance of learning through play is at the heart of the controversies surrounding the British Government’s Early Years Foundation Stage legislation. The Learning and Development Goals elements of the framework have been widely criticised by expert early years practitioners (including those who support the Open Eyecampaign). The targets are not simply recommendations but statutory goals and this fact puts pressure on both children and carers which in turn is detrimentally affecting young children’s ability to learn through free and exploratory play.

Early years experts say there is a lack of evidence and research to support the introduction of these goals – they are ‘too much too soon’ for children under five. Despite a high profile campaign and a ten-thousand-strong petition to the British Parliament there is no sign of change. What this means for our children’s ability to learn through play has yet to be seen. Does this apparently cynical and selfish brand of political expediency mark the death of play and even the death of childhood itself?