The Purpose of Play in Early Childhood

When we try to think of something happy, children playing is often one of the first things that comes to mind. The simple idea of children playing and laughing epitomises joy. That’s pretty powerful. Even more than just happiness, play and play-based learning are essential to any early childhood pedagogy. Let’s go back to basics and explore.

What is ‘play’?

To get us started with our discussion on the topic, let’s look at the meaning of the word play.
Merriam-Webster dictionary defines play as: recreational activity; especially the spontaneous activity of children.
Look up play in the Oxford Dictionary and is says: Engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose.
Adding to the above, there are several definitions that expand on the above. Early Childhood Australia (ECA) outlines some of these various meanings for us:
-pleasurable-play is an enjoyable and pleasurable activity. Play sometimes includes frustrations, challenges and fears; however enjoyment is a key feature
-symbolic-play is often pretend, it has a ‘what if?’ quality. The play has meaning to the player that is often not evident to the educator
-active-play requires action, either physical, verbal or mental engagement with materials, people, ideas or the environment
-voluntary-play is freely chosen. However, players can also be invited or prompted to play
-process oriented-play is a means unto itself and players may not have an end or goal in sight

What is play-based learning?

Play-based learning is just that – learning that is based in play. But let’s not oversimplify it as it is a research-based approach that has a lot of thought behind it.
The Early Years Learning Framework for Australia describes play-based learning as “a context for learning through which children organise and make sense of their social worlds, as they engage actively with people, objects and representations”.
The benefits of play-based learning
We love that play-based learning works with children’s interests while opening children up to a range of learning experiences.
These learning experiences can be related to so many areas of importance, including:
-Relationships with others
-Negotiation and conflict resolution
-Problem solving
The benefits of play-based learning have been studied extensively, with many researchers finding that children learn best in child-directed settings accompanied by adults.
Of course, it’s up to educators to gently direct children’s play by providing stimuli and activities that will bring about the intended learning. This is where intentional teaching is so important. That is, educators being purposeful and thoughtful about how a centre’s program and learning outcomes are approached.
Let’s not forget about documentation either. Documentation is a vital element of play-based learning and in fact all learning within an early childhood setting if we are to have any chance of meaningful reflection about our curriculum and learning outcomes.

Creating positive early childhood programs

-A play-based approach is best for optimal learning
-Your play program should be child-led by educator-guided and well planned
-Provide children with an early childhood program that takes a holistic approach
-Focus on the learning outcomes and intentional teaching in all that you do as an educator
-Learning – and especially play-based learning – should always be fun so keep it light and enjoyable
-Don’t forget about documentation and following each child’s unique learning journey through play

People photograph designed by Pressfoto –

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