Play is …

It would be hard to overstate the importance of play in children’s learning and development. Play is …

* the way that children interact with and consequently learn about their world;

* vital for developing language and acquiring new vocabulary;

* crucial for building both fine and gross motor skills;

* essential for learning how to share, socialise and build relationships with others;

* a brilliant way for children to express their emotions and develop their confidence;

* critical for helping children learn how to assess and manage risk;

* the way in which children come to understand the concept of symbolic representation;

* important for healthy physical development;

* vital for building creativity and imagination;

* the perfect way to explore new ideas and make new connections (as an adult, too).

It strikes me that the gap between what we call ‘advantaged’ and ‘disadvantaged’ children is at least partly about a deficit in opportunities to play. Today is National Play Day: the perfect opportunity to play with those you love (a child, a pet, a friend, yourself). I’m keen to go and play with my family on the beach, so I’ll stop there and wish a happy play day to one and all!

This entry was posted in Children, Creativity, Early Years, Learning, Play, Preschools. Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Play is …

  1. bt0558 says:

    I understand that recognisable humans have been on the earth for maybe 2 million years, estimates vary.

    It seems likely therefore that human children have been learning via play for at least this time period if not longer.

    I wonder how much longer the situation will need to persist before we are able to describe play as “traditional”.

    Maybe another year or two?


    • Since play is a type of behaviour characteristic of mammals – and occasionally of birds, it does look pretty traditional. Asking for evidence of its efficacy is like asking for evidence of the efficacy of digestion or locomotion. What its efficacy is in relation to formal education would depend on how you define formal education.


  2. nemocracy says:

    While logicalinstrumentalism has neatly put it all in a nutshell I made a casual promise to answer @oldandrewuk on this blog. Hope you don’t mind me commandeering, Sue, but in the age old language of children, “You started it!”.

    I apologise that I don’t know how to reference twitter conversations. Andrew’s and my tweets all followed on from Sue’s blog post above, for the claims made on which Andrew wants evidence. There is some evidence that covers some of Sue’s points here, by the way, although of course wider reading is probably necessary, for which the references here might prove useful:

    Click to access IEAsummary.pdf

    This is the conversation:

    Me: Watch children. Play is their default mode of being. Learning has to happen through play, or it won’t happen….

    OA: Doesn’t this redefine “play” to the point where it is meaningless?

    OA: All your claims become utterly meaningless if “play” simply means “the behaviours of small children”.

    Me: I don’t think so, but it needs more than 140 characters to discuss. I’ll write something on Sue’s blog.

    Me: play isn’t the only behaviour though. We know something is wrong when children don’t play.

    OA: Okay “the normal behaviours of small children”.

    I think there may be some differences of definition going on here, but Andrew has answered his own query in some part by saying that I am defining play as “The normal behaviours of young children”. There are many normal behaviours of young children which they share with adults, and which are vital to development: feeding, sleeping, moving their limbs etc. but in most of these behaviours it is accepted that children will exercise them in immature ways. Their moving, in particular, is clearly immature and developing from babyhood on. One could say that in these respects children are proto-adults.

    What is odd is that ‘play’ seems to be defined, in some quarters, as something that needs to be ‘grown out of’ in order to be largely and increasingly replaced by ‘learning’, whereas ‘play’ is the prototype of ‘learning’, and ‘learning’ for adults is frequently experienced as play, especially if it is productive and absorbing – the most effective type of learning, many would argue.

    Of course, children’s play can occur at different levels and have varying quality. This is where the idea of children being prototype adults is very useful. Children’s play will always be circumscribed by their adults, who will be permissive or not of different sorts of play, provide well, or not, for play, provide good environments, or not etc. Children at play are learnng to be adults and their models are their carers. The quality of their play, which includes the quality of their learning to be adult, will depend on those carers. Carers who understand play as being about learning the adult world will make any learning playful and any play ‘learningful’, at the developmental level of play/learning the child has reached.


    • The problem is that this stretches definitions to breaking point. If play is about learning, then is it even “play”? Surely the distinguishing feature of play is that it is not for a purpose other than enjoyment? If we ignore that convention then, of course, one can make far greater claims about the benefits of play by incorporating a much wider variety of activities under the banner of “play”. But in doing so, you also make the advocacy of more play meaningless.


  3. nemocracy says:

    Yes, I see your point, Andrew. What I’m saying is that there isn’t a barrier between play and learning. Learning can also be about enjoyment. Children don’t always enjoy play, they can be challenged and frustrated when they are unable to reach their goals in play. Likewise learning presents its challenges. And in both fields overcoming challenges is satisfying and brings a sense of enjoyment. There is far more that is similar between even your definition of play as enjoyable and your definition of work (not enjoyable?) than you credit.

    Does this make the advocacy of more play meaningless? No, the advocacy of children’s play for children and adult’s play for adults, and all the play development in between, is well-served. A definition of play which says it is for children only does not recognise that children’s play is the prototype of adult’s play, while the recognition of children’s play as having purpose underpins good practice in the early years.


  4. nemocracy says:

    Yes, so you did. Well I would agree that it is for the purpose of enjoyment, but that learning is an essential element of that enjoyment. I don’t find the division you make authentic. Now, teaching at some stages may not be primarily about making things enjoyable, but learning is always more likely to happen when pupils are interested. Would you agree with that?

    Now I feel I must stop wittering on on Sue’s blog. We could nit pick for hours.


    • Surely you are not denying that it is possible to enjoy something and not learn from it?


      • nemocracy says:

        Aha, tempting me back on. I really can’t think of any enjoyable activity from which there is no learning. In fact, I can’t think of any *activity* from which there is no learning. I’ve just learnt that I’m not good at leaving things be. Well, reinforced that knowledge. But I am going to leave it be now.


      • “Surely the distinguishing feature of play is that it is not for a purpose other than enjoyment? ” No ‘surely’ about it. Enjoyment is what motivates perseverance in play, but since play isn’t always enjoyable, that’s not likely to be its purpose. In juvenile mammals the *effect* of play is to develop locomotor, sensory, cognitive and social skills. Its *purpose*, if you can call it that, is to rehearse and develop skills that will be needed in adulthood. The distinguishing feature of play is that although it’s a precursor of adult skills needed for chasing, hunting, social interaction etc it doesn’t usually have those outcomes. That’s the role of play in development. Learning is an integral part of play and because of the mechanisms underlying brain plasticity, I agree with nemocracy it’s unlikely any activity won’t result in learning.

        Play self-evidently fulfils the functions Sue lists. You only have to observe children playing to see those features. But I note that she refers to play in learning and development. The role of play in education is another matter and that’s where evidence comes in.


  5. bt0558 says:

    Clearly there are all sorts of motives for play, and as suggested by nemocracy they probably all involve learning.

    Sometimes it can be more difficult to specify/direct/plan the learning that takes place during play. I can see that if one needs to be in control of learning then “play” could seem a bit scary. I played the “prisoners dliemma” game with an A level economics group last week. It was great fun and they did learn a good deal


  6. “No ‘surely’ about it. Enjoyment is what motivates perseverance in play, but since play isn’t always enjoyable, that’s not likely to be its purpose.”

    Could you give an example of play in humans which is not *intended* to be enjoyable? Without that I find it hard to see how it could be identified as play.


  7. I don’t think you can assume that whoever is playing intends the play to be enjoyable. People play for all kinds of reasons; curiosity, experimentation, displacement, to relieve boredom etc.


  8. nemocracy says:

    Having thought round this subject some more, and round the notion that there needs to be hard evidence that learning through play is beneficial in order for this to be known, I have started to wonder at what point adult instinct about what is beneficial for offspring leaves off and where it becomes a matter for debate, differing opinions and, indeed, the offering of hard evidence. Another issue is about where personal experience with children stops guiding behaviour and where professional opinion becomes influential. Undoubtedly there have to be professional rather than personal choices made where children are in the care of school. On what basis are these choices made? Are they based on the prevailing instinct/wisdom of practitioners handed down and on day to day experience of a child (this seems to be some sort of ‘parental’ consensus), or are they based on decisions made on evidence collected outside the setting in question (this would seem to be guided by scientific, but non-specific evidence). I suppose it comes down, yet again, to whether or how far we can formulate general rules concerning educational environments. And I think stage of education is a factor too. Early years may be very different from later stages in this respect in that the children themselves are on the cusp between being instinctive and being socialised- for-school.


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