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The Importance of Play in the Early Years

Educators are re-thinking how to teach young children to tap their enormous learning potential. Play is one of the most important ways in which young children gain essential knowledge and skills. For this reason, play opportunities and environments that promote play, exploration and hands-on learning are at the core of effective pre-primary programmes. The next section of this brief explains what is meant by play and play-based learning and gives examples of the many ways in which children learn through play.


Play takes many forms

Everyone knows ‘play’ when they see it – on streets, in villages, on playgrounds, in classrooms. People from every culture, economic background and community engage in play from their earliest years. Yet play can be hard to define. Researchers and theorists, however, agree on the key characteristics of playful experiences, as seen in the figure on this page. An important aspect of play is children’s agency and control over the experience. Agency refers to children’s initiative, decision-making and self-choice in play. Ultimately, play should involve some degree of agency, enabling children to take on an active role and ownership in their experiences, as well as recognizing and trusting children to be capable, autonomous, and agents of their own playful learning journeys.


Learning through play in organized pre-primary setting

In organized pre-primary settings, play experiences are enhanced when children are provided with ample time and space to engage freely with the pre-primary setting/environment. Play can occur in many forms: play with objects; imaginary play; play with peers and adults; solitary play; cooperative play; associative play; physical play. Play is considered children’s “work” and is the vehicle through which children acquire knowledge and skills, allowing children to engage independently and with others. The role of teachers and other adults in the room/environment is to enable and scaffold playful experiences and learning – this requires thoughtful planning (for example, setting out materials to pique children’s curiosity) and spontaneous interactions building on natural curiosities and ideas (for example, following the children’s lead in pretend play). Providing children with active and playful hands-on experiences help foster and enrich learning.

Learning through play at home and in the community

While this brief focuses on the systems approach to integrate play in all aspects of pre-primary programs and to ensure developmentally appropriate practice, we must not forget that young children do not only learn in formal or organized settings. The home environment and the community are where young children spend the larger, if not the largest, part of their early lives, interacting with parents, siblings, extended family members, and neighbours. These interactions and relationships have a significant influence over how children understand and experience the world around them. Indeed, home environments and the community provide excellent opportunities to promote learning through play from the early years through pre-primary and primary years. Primary caregivers, as children’s “first teachers”, are the biggest supporters of children’s learning, and therefore have an important role in creating the space for learning through play. It is therefore essential to support caregivers and empower them to take an active role in shaping children’s learning and development, as well as to facilitate playful learning for their children at home and in the community in day-to-day experiences.

Learning through play in the early grades of primary school

Learning through play is not only for pre-schoolers. In the primary grades, play opportunities enhance children’s mastery of academic concepts and build motivation to learn. In fact, two of the most important things that play can develop are interest and motivation. Encouraging these in the early grades brings children on board in contributing to their own learning. For example, playing board games can strengthen math concepts while building social competence. Book clubs, dramatizing stories, and other reading games, make it much more likely for struggling readers to move ahead and not give up. Exploration of a wide variety of printed materials and writing tools at a ‘writing corner’ can engage reluctant writers and help children learn from one another. Further, play fosters creativity and imagination, critical components in enabling us to cope, to find pleasure, and to innovate. Play and opportunities to engage actively in learning strengthens student’s creative powers. Letting primary grade students engage actively with materials, issues, topics, opens up the space for inquiry and problem solving.

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