PLAY AND LEARNING
The depth and breadth of learning within play is unmatched when compared to children’s other activities of daily living. In play, the learning is intrinsically motivated, connections between prior and new learnings are made in meaningful contexts, and development is nurtured in a full range of skills.
Play is essential for children’s development. So much so, that a child’s right to play was formally recognised by the United Nations Human Rights Convention on the Rights of the Child (Article 31, Nov. 1989).
PLAY AND SCHOOL
Given the vast learning potential of play, its value must be reflected in the school setting. Furthermore, there is overwhelming evidence suggesting that children who are afforded more time to play; and more inquiry based, self directed play opportunities, go on to achieve the best academic outcomes.
We need only look to Finland for one of the most well researched and documented success stories in terms of respecting the importance of play in education. Finnish schools explore playful learning environments, with the aim of increasing learning through play in curriculum-based education.
One article in The Atlantic on How Finland Keeps Kids Focused Through Free Play noted that: “An American teacher in Helsinki questioned the national practice of giving 15 minute breaks each hour—until he saw the difference it made in his classroom.”
Additionally, “teachers in Finland spend fewer hours at school each day and spend less time in classrooms than American teachers. Teachers use the extra time to build curriculums and assess their students. Children spend far more time playing outside, even in the depths of winter. Homework is minimal. Compulsory schooling does not begin until age 7.” (Educating Americans for the 21st Century, Smithsonian.com).
However, there is significant variation between different educational systems/schools and the emphasis on play within the school day. Without delving into the political arena too intensely, this is a complex matter, involving decision makers at all levels, from parents and families, to educational staff, administration, management and government.
PLAY, SCHOOL AND OCCUPATIONAL THERAPY
Occupational therapists (OTs) have long been involved in supporting children to more successfully engage in classroom tasks and school routines. Since play is children’s primary occupation, OTs love collaborating with children experiencing difficulties, their families, teachers and support workers, to encourage greater confidence and competence in play at school.
Playful activities and active learning games, although predominantly adult-directed, are a welcome break from the poor outcomes, boredom and ineffectiveness of purely desk based, sedentary tasks; worksheets; and rote learning. Nowadays, it is wonderful to see teachers exploring increasingly creative and motivating ways to work towards the required curriculum standards. Occupational therapists and physical therapists support these initiatives for children as they fit well with their attempts to encourage:
- less time sitting, and more time moving;
- development of a wider range of gross, fine motor, sensory, social and language related skills;
- learning through multiple sensory modalities (appealing to different learning styles); and
- greater levels of attention, performance, and therefore, self-esteem!
‘Play-based learning’ is a term which seems to be associated with a number of interpretations. However, it all comes down to how we define ‘play’. For some of the world’s very best and most universally accepted descriptions of play, I recommend checking out the International Play Association and their Declaration on the Importance of Play 2014.
If we can appreciate the vital emphasis on child-led, unstructured activity, pursued with neither adult direction nor the expectation of start, middle or end points; and the immense learning that comes from it… then perhaps ‘play-based learning’ could be referred to as simply: ‘play’!
15 ACTIONABLE TIPS TO SUPPORT MORE QUALITY PLAY AT SCHOOL
Facilitating more child-led play opportunities into the school day is not without obstacles. It can sometimes be viewed as too difficult to implement, unimportant or irrelevant in the school setting (commonly as it distracts from ‘academic’ goals), or something that only happens outside of school hours. In short, it can be misunderstood and in turn, undervalued.
Whilst there is a case for shorter school days and starting school later (when children are 6-7 years old), allowing for more play-filled childhoods, the following ideas for consideration focus on the existing school hours and ultimately ‘more play within the school day’. This list is not exclusive, but rather, is intended to ignite the conversation around a more play centric school life.
1. Longer lunch and play times.
2. More regular breaks throughout the intensive, teacher-led sessions.
3. Interesting environmental features, such as the inclusion of: small spaces, curves, uneven/sloped/hilly ground surfaces, climbable trees and features, rocks, tree stumps/logs, paths, a variety of plants to use in play…
4. Access to water for use in play, perhaps even deliberately designed slopes/sunken sections to collect rainwater for puddle jumping.
5. Access to a wide range of loose parts in the classroom and playground. Outdoor loose parts could include: cardboard boxes, tyres, material, blocks, mixing bowls and spoons, tubes… Really there is no limit to the possibilities of loose parts in play. For a truly fabulous (free) resource, I cannot recommend the Loose Parts Manual from play experts at Playground Ideas and Pop-Up Adventure Play highly enough. It is full of inspiration and clear, practical recommendations for a variety of settings.
6. Sandpit/digging pit areas and tools.
7. Free access to a selection of sport equipment (cones, balls, bats, skipping ropes/elastics, …)
8. ‘Making tools’ (tapes, scissors, string, …)
9. Designated wall/floor/fence spaces with art tools for creative art play (chalk, paints, brushes, water squirters…)
10. Consider access to different, supervised, specialty classrooms over lunchtime (eg. woodwork, metalwork, art room, kitchen…)
11. More adult interest during play times (without interfering, joining only if invited) would also be highly beneficial. Educators can continue their observations of children’s knowledge and skills in action in the playground (and during classroom breaks), sending the message to children that playing is important and valued.
12. Allowing students the opportunity to be actively involved in the design processes of play areas and available materials for play (including modifications over time).
13. Regular adult assessment and removal of hazards (ie. dangers which are unseen/hidden to children, such as broken glass in the grass).
14. Giving students the opportunity to play outdoors if they are dressed appropriately, including sun hats and suncream in Summer and warm clothes, waterproof jacket and gumboots/wellies in wet or even rainy weather. (Students being able to change their clothes should they become saturated from playing at lunch, is far preferable to missing out on rich play experiences).
15. Allowing and encouraging students to engage in tree climbing, play on swings, handstands, cartwheels, ‘tiggy’/’chasing’ games, and superhero play (for example) – all of which have been banned by different schools over the years, however, offer many developmental and play skill benefits.
WHEN PLAY BREAKS DOWN
When play breaks down, doesn’t go to plan, or is just plain difficult, it can be heartbreaking for children. It is possible that kids will pick themselves up, brush themselves off and keep trying. It is also possible, that try as they might, it is all too much, and specific support may be required to bring back the fun, curiosity, participation and success to play times. As play is a complex occupation, the underlying reasons for difficulties, and consequently, solutions for improvement and development, are many and varied. Of course, I would recommend getting in touch with your local paediatric occupational therapist for a thorough skills assessment and strategies to best support individuals.
As a final thought, let’s return to the Finnish schools.
“In class, children are allowed to have fun, giggle and daydream from time to time.
Finns put into practice the cultural mantras …
“Let children be children”,
“The work of a child is to play” and
“Children learn best through play.”
(This Is Why Finland Has the Best Schools, The Sydney Morning Herald, 2016)
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This post is part of the Functional Skills for Kids 12 Months Series by Occupational and Physical Therapists.
You can read all of the functional skills HERE.
Read all of my monthly posts in this series HERE.
Looking for more information about School Day Functions from an occupational therapy and physical therapy perspective? Stop by to see what the other OTs and PTs in the Functional Skills for Kids series have written…
Fine Motor Skills Needed at School and Classroom Activities | Sugar Aunts
How Do Gross Motor Skills Affect Academics? | Your Therapy Source
65 Helpful Strategies for Students with Sensory Challenges | Mama OT
Brain Breaks to Help Concentration in the Classroom | Your Kids OT
Things You can do at Home to Help Your Child in School | Therapy Fun Zone
Tips for Following Directions in the Classroom and Home | Growing Hands-On Kids
Positioning In The Classroom |Miss Jaime OT
10 Transition Strategies for Kids: Preventing Tantrums | The Inspired Treehouse
The Case for More Play in the School Setting | Kids Play Space
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