Redefining play

In the UK, there is a movement towards reinvigorating the concept and also the importance of play. Play England, is just one organisation campaigning for all children and young people to have freedom and space to play throughout childhood. Working with national partners and other organisations, Play England aims to raise awareness about the importance of play by lobbying government to make fundamental policy changes to protect and promote play, and encouraging everyone who has an impact on the lives of children and young people to recognise and plan for children’s play.

“Why is the value of learning through play not recognised?” asks Bo Stjerne Thomsen, Global Head of Research at the Lego Foundation. Bo calls for a need to redefine play. He considers one of the reasons that the value in play has not been acknowledged is because the notion of play as a concept does not have a clear purpose or a clear contribution to learning for children. And yet, being playful, he contends, is key to our natural ability to learn.

Steven Johnson, the author of “Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World” supports Bo in his passion for play in children’s lives, but also in adulthood. He contends that play is important for innovation and new ideas, with the concepts of play, fun and delight being key to transformative ideas. One of the issues Johnson highlights in our interpretation of play is a historical mindset, one which views play as being a trivial pursuit, escapism without a purpose. However, he dismisses this view, claiming “play [to be] the core to all our identities [since] we are playful species”.

The idea of “playing” might be something which most adults consider ought to be confined to childhood, something which does not hold value, is frivolous and something we do not have time for as we mature. However, I concur with both Bo Stjerne Thomsen and Steven Johnson, that as adults we have an awful lot to learn about the way in which our children encounter the world.

Play can have purpose and in a child’s mind, it almost always does, even if that is without conscious thought. Through play, we can feel empowered, be creative, and take on new roles. We can also become effective lifelong learners according to the Lego Foundation.

Why is it so critical to engage children in the learning process?

The world of our childhood and of generations before us is and was different to the world our children will inhabit in the future. Faced with conflict and challenges on every scale, be it economic, political or environmental, children need to be equipped with the skills and the confidence to be able to imagine change, to devise solutions, to innovate and to create. All of which is possible through play.

“Play and learning are like the two wings of a butterfly – one cannot exist without the other.” (Carla Rinaldi – President of Reggio Children)

We know that from birth children begin to make connections between experiences in order to build knowledge, but this process does not occur in isolation. We need to nurture, enable and support children in their exploration, often researching alongside them as an active participant. Play can take place in an ordinate number of ways, influenced by the cultural and social context, but the fundamental rights of the child must always be present: to be listened to, to be heard and to have the right to make choices.

In conjunction with experts in the field of play and following an extensive review of associated literature, the Lego Foundation describes five characteristics of what might be considered to be “playful experiences”. It is not regarded as formal definition of play, but goes some way to explaining how a child’s experience can lead to deeper learning.

Learning through play happens when an activity:

  1. is experienced as being joyful – this is at the heart of play,
  2. helps children find meaning in what they are doing or learning (making connections to something already known),
  3. involves active, engaged, minds-on thinking (mental immersion and focus),
  4. as well as iterative thinking (experimentation, hypothesis testing, trying out possibilities), and
  5. social interaction (sharing thought processes and ideas).

Play not only prepares children for a lifetime of learning, it also has a role in developing and supporting the holistic skills necessary for a child to integrate in society. A child needs to be confident and resilient and have the capacity to reflect. Arguably, it is this ability to reflect which drives change and motivates us to seek solutions. Without reflection, we fail to innovate and to grow.


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