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Playing to Learn, Learning to Play

November, 2014
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Learning begins at birth, and a child’s early development and later health and learning are shaped by their day-to-day experiences within their family and community. Children learn by playing in places where they feel safe, respected, and loved. Children’s play is children’s work.

For many children, their first experience of schooling is at the age of four or five, while others may attend day-care from six months of age. If you spend any time observing children at play you will notice that their focus and concentration is very deep, they like to talk about what they are doing and they will often repeat activities or tasks over and over again. It is the role of the adult to ensure that the children in their care are able to explore, develop, practise and repeat new skills in order to make progress.

Whilst visiting a Reception class recently, with children aged four to five years, I was invited into their imaginative play. Their play was based on a pirate theme and the children were outdoors, climbing aboard their pirate ship climbing frame in a quest to find treasure! The children were discussing the possible location of the treasure and I gently suggested that we might need a map. The children thought this was a good idea and we disembarked the ship to go into the classroom to locate the necessary materials. We found paper, markers, pencils and other resources and we were engrossed in map-making for the next ten minutes or so. This led the children to realise that our ship needed to have a name and the children worked collaboratively, using their early phonic skills, to write the name of our vessel on huge pieces of paper that were then attached to the ship with all of our ‘pirate names’ listed on there too. One intuitive young man, aged just four years old, then decided that if we were going to hunt for treasure then we must make that treasure first. This set the children off on their next task, making golden coins. They used their mathematical knowledge of shape and numbers to create coins of differing amounts. It was at this point that I, as their pirate comrade and teacher, challenged their understanding of numbers by encouraging the children to make coins with higher values and was surprised and excited that some of the children could write numbers, accurately into the hundreds, and one student could even write numbers in the thousands (not in any country’s maths curriculum for a child of that age).

During this extremely valuable play the children practised and developed their skills, extended their learning of phonics, shape and numbers, concentrated on purposeful and self-chosen tasks, and I was able to differentiate questions to challenge each individual. It was clear to see the value of this play opportunity to the children, and their learning was measureable in so many ways.

These learning experiences have the greatest impact when they are self-chosen and linked to the child’s interests. A wide variety of activities, opportunities, resources, time and space will encourage and enable learning to happen at the highest level. Children need to get into a state of ‘flow’ where they become so attuned to what they are doing that they lose a sense of self and time – this is when real learning takes place. This is illustrated in the ‘pirate play’. This kind of play and learning can only really occur when the environment has been carefully planned for it, otherwise there is a risk of the children experiencing a ‘free for all’.

Good Early Years settings make use of large, bright open plan spaces, creating a fluid transition between inside and the outdoors. Furniture, lighting and choice of resources help to demarcate different areas and stimulate thinking, resulting in challenge and variety for all learners.

In a good quality setting, children learn by exploring the world through play with the active presence of teachers. These highly trained, qualified and experienced teachers must guide the children’s learning through play activities that suit the child’s age and level of development. A skilled Early Years teacher will not try to dictate or control the activities a child chooses to participate in; they will know what each child’s next step is and use whatever the child is interested in to teach them what they need to know next. This personalised and individual approach ensures all students maximise their potential.

As well as child-initiated play-based learning, children also learn by participating in traditional teacher-led sessions where whole classes or groups will engage in a more ‘formal’ lesson. This is often where new concepts are introduced or misconceptions are discussed and corrected, particularly relevant in early literacy or numeracy lessons. Often the teacher has an explicit area of learning and wants to target all of the children together. A balance of child initiated and teacher led learning will enable children to make the greatest amounts of progress. A quote from the UK’s Early Education website (www.early-education.org.uk) says, “The ways in which the child engages with other people by playing and exploring, actively learning, creating and thinking critically underpin learning and development across all areas and support the child to remain an effective and motivated learner.”

Whilst all of this learning is happening through play, children are also busy developing their understanding of the social and emotional behaviours expected when groups of people come together. From the ages of one to two, most children are very egocentric; they are focused primarily on themselves, what they want and need. Children are moving from a very self-absorbed state at two years old to being much more aware of those around them. During this time the adult’s role is critical in assisting and teaching young children how to take account of the wishes of others whilst asserting themselves, especially at times of conflict.

There are times in a nursery class when an adult will gently intervene when two children both want to play with the same toy; there are a number of strategies the adult may use to help the children resolve their conflict amicably. To begin with, the adult may find a duplicate toy so that both children may continue to play; explaining that we don’t need to fight over the toy when there are more of the same. The adult may distract one or both children from the situation by offering a different toy, teaching them that we can have fun playing with something different. As the children begin to understand and mature the adult will encourage turn taking, maybe with the help of a timer, and for a short time one of the children plays with the toy and when their time is over they give the toy to their friend. Finally, the adult would encourage the children to play with the toy together, maybe suggesting or encouraging a new way to play with it. The teacher’s responsibility is to judge which approach the child is ready for developmentally, and as they grow the children will become more socially competent and emotionally secure. In the same way, throughout a child’s early education they are learning how to wait for their turn, how to access resources independently and with safety and skill, the importance of tidying up after themselves and to consider their own thoughts and feelings and those of others. These social and emotional skills are the foundations to successful learning.

This is why ‘learning to play’ is just as important as ‘playing to learn’.

Helping at home:

·       Talk to and play with your child from birth!

·       Encourage your child to play with other children, both supervised and independently of adults.

·       Value your child’s play, how they want to play and what they want to play.

·       Model socially acceptable behaviour with your child, like sharing or taking turns.

·       Encourage independence; if your child wants the cars let them fetch them, and also insist they help with tidying up!


By Christianne Chappell,

Head of Early Years at The British International School Shanghai, Pudong




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