If you’ve read some of my other articles, you’ll know that play is really what I’m all about. As a teacher and a parent, it is increasingly my belief that providing children with plenty of time and space to play is the best way to foster their natural curiosity and develop a lifelong love of learning. Where circumstances allow, this can be furthered by providing enriching resources (this does not mean expensive toys), good books and valuable experiences, but above them all is play. I wanted to write a post to summarise some of the many benefits of play and highlight the true power of play!
Play is Instinctual
Play is such a natural way to learn. It bridges culture and time. Throughout history, all over the world, children play. Even without toys, children will find a way to play – whether that’s drawing with a stick on the ground, playing trains in a cardboard box, or climbing anything at hand! It is an intrinsic human trait to want to challenge oneself and when children play, they are seen to do this over and over again.
However, play is under attack. In modern society, our lives are often busy and stressful. Children spend considerably less time outside and, consequently, less time socialising with peers than in previous generations. Education has become increasingly formalised, with less time for children to play freely. In addition, society is more risk-averse than it has been in the past. All of these things work together to limit play, and with it, the many wonderful opportunities that it gives them.
The importance of allowing children the time and space to play cannot be understated. It’s easy to forget the value of play in our hectic day-to-day lives, and it feels counter-cultural to make space for what on the face of it seems like leisure time. It also seems to me that perhaps we have lost our faith in play – there are now a huge number of classes for young children, and fantastic as many of them are, I can’t help but wonder if they play on parent’s insecurities that somehow free play isn’t providing what their children need? But what if we stopped thinking of free play as an inconsequential past-time, and instead realised just how valuable it is? I strongly believe that not only is play FUN, it’s also the principal way in which children learn and essential for their health and wellbeing. Let me expand.
The Power of Play for Learning
I could try and list the skills that children learn through play, but frankly, they are so comprehensive and so numerous that we would be here all day. So I’ll try to keep it brief. When children play, they are fulfilling their innate desire to learn. They want to satisfy their own curiosities and so they explore, hypothesise, experiment, push boundaries, observe, and make connections. When they play, they might be developing skills, knowledge and understanding in any number of areas, such as problem solving, motor skills, social competence, language acquisition, creativity or scientific concepts, to name just a few. One of the marvellous and unique characteristics of play is that they are usually developing several of these things all at once, which in fact leads to a greater understanding of and ability to apply what they have learned than if any of those things had been taught discreetly.
Play is Interesting
Have you ever ended up watching a documentary that you weren’t really invested in? Perhaps someone else in your family wanted to watch it, or you had thought it would be more interesting than it was? Or have you ever had training at work which felt irrelevant and unnecessary. I’d be willing to bet that you didn’t take in an awful lot of the information you were being given in those circumstances. Change those, then to a documentary about something you’re really passionate about, or some training which really excites you as you know it’s showing to empower and equip you in your role. How much more did you come away with this time? Similarly, when children are provided with opportunities to playfully engage in activities that really interest and excite them, they are motivated to explore and learn, and the learning is so much more memorable!
As an example, I recently made a bottle rocket with my daughter, using vinegar and bicarbonate of soda to create a reaction. Now we could have just gone ahead with the activity but I wanted to help her understand not just that these two things would send a bottle flying in to the air, but why.
She’s experimented with bicarbonate of soda and vinegar before, so before we started I asked her if she could remember what happens when you mix them. “No,” she replied, then, “Oh, hang on. I think they go all fizzy.” She probably hadn’t been exposed to this chemical reaction for around 18 months, so I think that’s pretty good recall! And after an afternoon of experimenting with expanding balloons, popping corks and zooming rockets, I imagine the knowledge that when they react, they make a gas is going to be in her head for a good while too. Of course, if I had simply told her those things, or perhaps even just shown her, I don’t expect she’d remember them at all – it simply wouldn’t be of interest or consequence.
Play Trains the Mind
In addition to the specific skills, knowledge and understanding that they gain from play, and perhaps most importantly, children learn how to learn. Einstein is quoted as saying,
“The value of an education…is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from textbooks.”
We live in a society which is changing and developing so fast, that we can’t yet predict what jobs will exist when the children of today are looking or work. They may well require skills and knowledge of things that they won’t have been taught – perhaps even of things which don’t yet exist! If they don’t know how to think and find things out for themselves, how will they adapt? Children need to have developed the skills of not only how to find the information they need, but also the confidence to step out of their comfort zone.
Play is fun, and when they’re having fun, they’re motivated to ask questions, investigate, and test hypotheses. In short, they’re motivated to learn. This is the power of play!
The Power of Play for Wellbeing
In addition to being a great way to learn, play is also important for children’s wellbeing.
In terms of their physical wellbeing, allowing children plenty of time to play – particularly outdoors – is good for general health and fitness. It builds stronger bones and muscles, improves the function of cardiovascular and respiratory systems, and encourages a healthy lifestyle. Physical play also improves brain function, impacting things such as focus, attention, memory and problem-solving. When children engage in physical play, they develop core strength and practise large muscle movements which are essential for developing motor skills later on.
Play is also important for mental health. Mental Health of Children and Young People in England (NHS, 2018) states that emotional disorders have become more common in five to fifteen years olds, with around one in every twelve children suffering from an emotional disorder such as anxiety or depression. There are other studies indicating that around 20% of children have some form of emotional, behaviour or mental health problem.
Allowing children time to play actually reduces anxiety, and play can even be used to help children express, process and work through specific challenges. I’ve always found it interesting how young children respond to puppets and soft toys, and can often be more willing to talk about worries or fears to these than to an adult – even one they know relatively well! It’s as though providing a playful context allows the children to open up in a way that they weren’t able to before. In addition, having time to explore, challenge themselves, take risks, and solve problems independently builds self-esteem, confidence and helps them learn to process emotions such as frustration or disappointment.
Play also impacts the social development of children. When they play, children learn to collaborate with each other. They develop social skills. They learn how to work alongside others and overcome disagreements. They learn how to communicate. They learn how to co-operate. They practise managing and processing emotions.
There are so many benefits to allowing children the time and space to play, and the more time I spend learning about play the more benefits I realise! But play doesn’t have to be complicated! There are a wealth of ideas on this blog which you can search by category. Or if you want to join my mailing list and get access to my Power of Play activity eBook as a welcome gift, you can do that here!