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The Learning Link
Prepared by the Early Childhood Learning Knowledge Centre
Play enhances every aspect of children’s development and learning. It is children’s window to the world. Play is so important that its significance in children’s lives is recognized by the United Nations as a specific right in addition to, and distinct from, a child’s right to recreation and leisure. However, children’s opportunities for play and their access to play environments is changing.
The physical and social environments in which Canadian children develop have changed over the past several decades. It is increasingly rare for children to have long, uninterrupted blocks of time to play indoors and outdoors, by themselves or with their friends.
Since the end of the Second World War, the proportion of the population living in urban areas has increased from 54% to 80%. As more Canadians move into cities, their children are less likely to have access to outdoor play spaces in natural environments. Technology, traffic, and urban land-use patterns have changed the natural play territory of childhood. Parents, increasingly concerned about the security of their children, are making greater use of carefully constructed outdoor playgrounds that limit challenge in the name of safety. , ,
There are consistent findings in research about the close relationship between symbolic play and literacy development and good evidence that increasing opportunities for rich symbolic play can have a positive influence on literacy development.
Pretend play with peers engages children in the same kind of representational thinking needed in early literacy activities. Children develop complex narratives in their pretend play. They begin to link objects, actions, and language together in combinations and narrative sequences. They generate language suited to different perspectives and roles.
Play nourishes every aspect of children’s development—it forms the foundation of intellectual, social, physical, and emotional skills necessary for success in school and in life. Play “paves the way for learning.”
For example, block building and sand and water play lay the foundation for logical mathematical thinking, scientific reasoning, and cognitive problem solving. Rough-and-tumble play develops social and emotional self-regulation and may be particularly important in the development of social competence in boys. Play fosters creativity and flexibility in thinking. There is no right or wrong way to do things; there are many possibilities in play—a chair can be a car or a boat, a house or a bed.
Pretend play fosters communication, developing conversational skills, turn taking, perspective taking, and the skills of social problem solving—persuading, negotiating, compromising, and cooperating. It requires complex communication skills: children must be able to communicate and understand the message, “this is play.” As they develop skill in pretend play, they begin to converse on many levels at once, becoming actors, directors, narrators, and audience, slipping in and out of multiple roles.
In play, children learn by combining their ideas, impressions, and intuitions with experiences and opinions. They create ideas about their world and share them with one another. They establish a culture and a social world with their peers. Play allows children to make sense—and sometimes nonsense—of their experiences and discover the intimacy and joy of friendship. When it is self-directed, play leads to feelings of competence and self-confidence.
The processes of play and learning stimulate one another in early childhood—there are dimensions of learning in play and dimensions of play in learning.
“Young children learn the most important things not by being told but by constructing knowledge for themselves in interaction with the physical world and with other children—and the way they do this is by playing.” 
“Children don’t play in order to learn, although they are learning while they are playing.”
“The pedagogical value of play does not lie in its use as a way to teach children a specific set of skills through structured activities called ‘play.’”
“Supporting children’s play is more active than simply saying you believe that it is important. When children’s play culture is taken seriously, the conditions which make it flourish are carefully created. Children’s play culture does not just happen naturally. Play needs time and space. It needs mental and material stimulation to be offered in abundance. Creating a rich play environment means creating good learning environments for children.”
“The skillful teacher of young children is one who makes….play possible and helps children keep getting better and better at it.”
There are both obvious and subtle forms of learning in play. For example outdoor play clearly contributes to children’s physical development. Less obvious is the learning that happens as children test their strength, externally and internally: How high can I climb? Why does my heart pound when I run? Am I brave enough to jump from this platform?
Nature has a positive impact on children’s physical and mental well-being. , , , Parents and early educators must design outdoor play environments with the same care and attention paid to indoor environments.
Natural landscapes in the outdoors typically provide:
Although the learning in play is powerful, it is often incidental, at least from the child’s perspective. The toddler absorbed by balancing blocks on top of one another is not necessarily motivated by a need or even a desire to learn the principles of stable physical structures, though this may indeed be what is fascinating; this learning is the byproduct of his play, and generally speaking, not its purpose.
Young children need a balance of opportunities for different kinds of play, indoors and outdoors. They need the support of knowledgeable adults and parents who do the following:
Lessons for everyone. Although children learn to play naturally, we all have a role in ensuring that children have enough time and opportunity to play. Children need access to play environments that support rich, spontaneous play.
Children learn when they play in environments with hands-on, concrete materials that encourage exploration, discovery, manipulation, and active engagement. The quantity, quality, and selection of play materials influence the interactions that take place between children. Adults help by protecting the time needed for exploration and discovery in uninterrupted play, and by interacting with children in ways that enhance their learning in play without interrupting the flow and direction of play.
Lessons for early childhood educators. While children do need time to play without adult interruption, some active adult involvement can be beneficial, resulting in longer, more complex episodes of play. Early childhood educators support children’s learning in play by becoming co-players, guiding and role modelling when the play becomes frustrating for the child or when it is about to be abandoned for lack of knowledge or skill. They provide new experiences for children to enrich and extend play, pose challenging questions, and encourage children to learn from one another.
In many early childhood programs, “free play” is used to fill time rather than to promote learning and development. While much learning does occur during centre time and circle time, spontaneous free play is equally important to early learning. It should be a focus of educators’ planning and interactions with children. Early childhood educators and elementary school teachers need specialized preparation to engage comfortably in child-initiated free play, as well as more structured play-based learning experiences.
Lessons for parents. In studies of the use of play as a learning tool, teachers often report that they have a difficult time convincing parents of the importance of play. Parents, therefore, need good information about the benefits of unstructured free play in early childhood and regular opportunities to engage with their children in play.
Lessons for community planners. When asked, children express a strong preference for playing outdoors. A study conducted in Germany concluded that communities can improve outdoor play opportunities and reduce traffic hazards by doing the following:
Play stimulates physical, social, emotional, and cognitive learning in the early years. Children need time, space, materials, and the support of parents and thoughtful, skilled early-childhood educators in order to become “master players.” They need time to play for the sake of playing.
In the current climate of concern over school readiness, we must preserve some opportunity for children to play for their own purposes. If play always and exclusively serves adult educational goals, it is no longer play from the child’s perspective. It becomes work, albeit playfully organized.
Preschool Outdoor Environment Measurement Scale
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Canadian Child Care Federation Go to the e-store to view the following titles: Outdoor play in early childhood education and care programs and Quality environments and best practices for physical activity in early childhood settings.
Natural Learning Initiative
International Play Association
International Play Association Canada
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Play enhances every aspect of children’s development and learning. It is children’s window to the world. Play is so important that its significance in children’s lives is recognized by the United Nations as a specific right in addition to, and distinct from, a child’s right to recreation and leisure. However, children’s opportunities for play and their access to play environments is changing.Le jeu enrichit globalement la croissance de l’enfant et favorise chez lui l'apprentissage. Il est sa fenêtre sur le monde. Son importance est telle que les Nations Unies l’ont reconnu comme un droit spécifique de l’enfant, distinct du droit aux loisirs et de celui de se livrer à des activités récréatives. Toutefois, les occasions que les enfants ont de jouer et d’accéder à des milieux de jeu sont en pleine transformation.
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