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The Importance of Play Based Learning

NEWS 17 June 2021
“‘Learning through play involves children learning deeply, leading to them gaining a wide range of skills and subject knowledge, and helping them to thrive as individuals while also contributing positively to the societies they live in.’”
Learning Through Play: Increasing impact, Reducing inequality The LEGO Foundation

A growing body of research is supporting the value of learning through play for children in Early Learning Centre (ELC) programs. While child’s play may appear to be simple, it can have lasting social, emotional, cognitive and physical benefits for children at the beginning of their learning journey.

The LEGO Foundation believes play-based learning helps children increase their creativity, sustains and engages their curiosity and supports lifelong learning.

The Learning Through Play: Increasing impact, Reducing inequality report analysed studies from 18 countries and concluded that play-based learning can also help bridge achievement gaps between children from different economic status groups.

The findings of the report have been supported by Professor Pasi Sahlberg, Deputy Director of the Gonski Institute for Education at the University of New South Wales.

“Unfortunately, play is too often seen as opposite to learning—something we have earned after real work is done,” Professor Sahlberg said when discussing children’s learning through play with The Educator magazine earlier this year.

But he added that there is an encouraging groundswell of schools that are recognising the benefits of play-based learning for younger children. Many of those schools are ensuring play is part of the school day for ELC and younger primary-aged students.

“I see a tipping point on the horizon, not too far away, when we will recognise how play is integral to children’s education, wellbeing and success in life,” Professor Sahlberg said.

Playing to Explore and Engage

Play-based approaches to learning form the foundation of the ELC Curriculum at Haileybury.

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“All learning experiences are play-based and intentionally and meaningfully planned to ignite children’s sense of wonder and engage their interests and curiosity in the world around them. This promotes a sense of belonging to the ELC environment, as children develop strong relationships with their peers and educators,” says Haileybury Head of ELC at Brighton, Ms Meagan Veale.

“Play sparks new interests and is an opportunity for children to learn at their own pace and in their own way. It supports children’s agency and success as they explore, discover and build on their capabilities, confidence and wellbeing.”

Play activities can be divided into five main types that often overlap. The five types of play identified in The LEGO Foundation report are:

  • Physical play
  • Pretend play
  • Object play (involving physical materials)
  • Symbolic play
  • Games with rules.
  • The report also says the experience of learning through play for children should be:
  • Joyful, even if it is challenging
  • Meaningful, by connecting to children’s lives and past experiences
  • Engaged, involving active, ‘minds-on’ thinking
  • Iterative, allowing children to test ideas and try things out
  • Social, involving interaction and collaboration with others.

Plenty of Play Opportunities within ELC

Haileybury’s ELC Curriculum embraces a range of indoor and outdoor play-based learning opportunities, says Director of ELC Dr Rachel Pollitt.

“Enriched play-based experiences are open-ended and incorporate natural materials to promote each child’s imagination and creativity, that focus on the processes of inquiry and learning rather than the product,” she says.

“Our environment is intentionally designed to provide stimulating and challenging play-based experiences as, typically, children learn by ‘doing.’ In this way, the program promotes children’s agency, development and higher-order thinking skills by providing differentiated learning opportunities.”

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Scaffolding and Open-ended Play

The potential of play-based learning emphasises the expertise of educators in creating an environment that allows young children to discover their world through play.

“Our Early Childhood professionals astutely observe children’s interests during play, then assess and align each child’s interests with specific, evidence-based learning objectives. In this way, educators determine what children know now and what they are ready to learn next,” explains Dr Pollitt.

“This sustains each child’s engagement in their learning by scaffolding their thoughts and discoveries and by asking open-ended questions to follow a child’s interests and to promote thinking and problem solving.

“In this, families are our partners as, together, we realise their child’s potential,” say Ms Veale and Dr Pollitt.

Supporting Play at Home

Notice what your child likes to do and provide them with related words to support new language skills. For example: “I notice you are making a bridge so it goes over the water…”

Cooking involves scientific thinking as you follow a method, combine ingredients and cause reactions. It also involves mathematical thinking as children weigh and measure.

Plan uninterrupted time to play with your child. Have fun, use your imagination, play scenarios and follow your child’s lead.

Provide open-ended, natural materials for your child to explore. Toys are terrific but children enjoy creating with their imagination, too.

Take a moment to connect with nature. Look up at the sky and ask your child what they notice, for example, shapes in the clouds or the moon rising during the day.