Why Time for Fun and Games is Essential for Early Childhood Education
The early years of childhood, specifically those before and during kindergarten, are vital years for growing minds. It is during these years that children first learn how to perceive the world around them, build relationships with others (such as preschool friends) and begin the foundational process of learning problem-solving and analytical skills. For the awe-inspiring curiosity and creativity of young children, into whose early development much research has been undertaken, every marker stain and scattering of building blocks tells a story of a learning journey. For parents, a common question may arise as little ones prepare for their first year of school – what is an appropriate balance between play and more traditional learning activities, like homework and reading?
The short answer is that play is just as important as learning. In fact, learning through play is a process of unparalleled value for the development of childhood cognition. Australian educational institutions have recently put considerable efforts towards embracing a play-based learning approach.
The Early Years Learning Framework was implemented in 2009 as a national response to scientific and social research into the value of play in the classroom. According to the Child Development Institute of California, USA there are different types of play:
“Social Play: By interacting with others in play settings, children learn social rules such as give and take, reciprocity, cooperation…and…learn to use moral reasoning to develop a mature sense of values.
Constructive Play: Constructive play is when children manipulate their environment to create things. This…allows children to experiment with objects; find out combinations that work and don’t work…Children who are comfortable manipulating objects and materials also become good at manipulating words, ideas and concepts.
Fantasy Play: Children learn to…try out new roles and possible situations…to experiment with language and emotions. In addition, children develop flexible thinking; learn to create beyond the here and now…In an ever-more technological society, lots of practice with all forms of abstraction – time, place, amount, symbols, words, and ideas – is essential.”
The evidence in support of the cognitive benefits of play-based learning is overwhelming. Early Childhood Australia describes this, ‘it is believed that play shapes the structural design of the brain…secure attachments and stimulation are significant aspects of brain development; play provides active exploration that assists in building and strengthening brain pathways… [increasing]…flexibility and improved potential for learning later in life,’ (‘Why Play-Based Learning?’ 2009-2013, Early Childhood Australia), adding that, ‘Worksheets and other ‘formal’ teaching strategies tend to make learning…for many children…more difficult.’ For these reasons, it is important that early childhood educators learn to create learning environments that support physical, mental and social play and experimentation.
The real question is…how is this done?
Modern educators must be equipped to ensure a holistic approach; the layout of classroom furniture, the availability of resources, and the attitudes of tutors and teachers themselves can promote opportunities for children to find the fun in learning. Integrating time for creative, musical or performance activities and lots of discussion into lessons creates a basis – interactive toys, from games to dolls and building materials – support this process. When planning lessons, tutors and teachers should perhaps keep in mind the following model of the ‘spiralled’ learning process of young children as described by Mitchel Resnick from MIT’s Media Lab, ‘children imagine what they want to do, create a project based on their ideas, play with their creations, share their ideas and creations with others, reflect on their experiences – all of which leads them to imagine new ideas and new projects.’ (‘All I Really Need to Know (About Creative Thinking) I Learned (By Studying How Children Learn) in Kindergarten’ Mitchel Resnick, Creativity & Cognition conference, 2007).