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How Important Is Play in Learning?

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Play is essential to learning! Engaging in play gives children opportunities to experiment with what they can do and to practice skills in a variety of ways.

Unfortunately, many early childhood programs are under pressure to implement fewer play-based learning strategies in favor of more teacher-directed activities. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) disagrees with this approach. In a clinical report the AAP emphasizes the importance of play, along with a balance of structured activities, in early childhood settings.

But aren’t they “just playing”? Yes! Exercise and physical activity are important for children to stay healthy and develop their growing bodies. But play offers many more benefits. Among them, the AAP lists improvements in executive functioning; development of language and early math skills; social development, including collaboration, negotiation, and conflict resolution; self-advocacy; decision-making; a sense of agency; creativity; and leadership. Additionally, the AAP asserts, “. . . cultivating the joy of learning through play is likely to better encourage long-term academic success.”

In contrast, a lack of play opportunities can increase the possibilities of hyperactivity/attention deficit disorder in children, can hamper development of their physical and social skills, and can affect future academic success and building connectivity, and, as the AAP suggests: “The stressful effects of this approach often result in the later development of anxiety and depression”(AAP 2018, 8).

One specific example of the effect of play on academic growth can be seen in dramatic play opportunities. When children are actively engaged in imaginative play, they start to develop deeper meanings behind the tangible things in their world. For example, as Ann Barbour puts it in her book Play Today, when children pretend to be different characters, they don’t just read a script or imitate those roles’ behaviors. Instead, they invent what it means for them to be in that role relative to what they already know. In doing this, the children add to and explore their understanding of the world around them and express what they may not be able to linguistically. These types of experiences enable children to successfully incorporate academic learning later on in life.

Secondly, play has a unique role when teaching children about their relationships with other children. Social-emotional learning through play gives children practice with social problem solving. For example, two children each want to swing on the same swing. They will argue and bargain, gaining experience in presenting their sides, assessing their feelings, and eventually discovering how it feels to either come to a solution or to remain in conflict. With teacher guidance, they will learn the process of conflict resolution and be able to apply those skills during free play.

There is a plethora of books and resources for teachers to use to explore the advantages and realities behind learning through play. If you want to learn more about play theory and ideas encouraging rich play experiences with preschoolers, take a look at Planning for Play by Kristen Kemple, PhD, and Play Today by Ann Barbour, PhD. Treasure Basket Explorations by Laura Wilhelm, EdD, and Time to Create by Christie Burnett offer rich ideas for play explorations with younger children.

Put play to work in your classroom, and watch the learning unfold!

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