Childhood is a wondrous time filled with endless curiosity, imagination, and awe. It's a period when kids embark on a journey of self-discovery and cognitive growth, and a cornerstone of this journey is play. Play isn't just frivolous; it's a child's primary activity, just as our jobs include being parents or, potentially, employees. Play plays a vital role in a child's physical, cognitive, emotional, and social development, and the benefits of play based learning are staggering.
Benefits of Play-Based Learning
Play is crucial for nurturing fine motor skills in children, a crucial skill set that's needed for a wide range of daily activities. Engaging in play often involves various hand and finger movements, including gripping, manipulating, pinching, and twisting objects, which helps strengthen and coordinate fine motor muscles. Within the realm of play, children develop the precision needed for tasks like handwriting, stacking, and assembling intricate objects.
As their fine motor skills advance, they gain more independence in their everyday routines, allowing them to dress themselves, use utensils, tie shoelaces, and handle other self-care tasks independently, thereby enhancing their confidence and self-reliance. Play based learning acts as a safe way to bridge between exploration and real-life, providing contextual examples children will experience in a non-threatening environment and scope.
As Lennie Bartlett explains, “play provides active exploration that assists in building and strengthening brain pathways” - the more research is done, the more we understand the power of play based learning and the benefits it has on a child’s brain socially, cognitively as well as physically.
Benefits of Play Based Learning on Cognitive Development
Play serves as a natural avenue for children to explore and understand the world around them. It's important to tailor play to the child's stage, whether it's sensory explorative play, parallel play, or moving toward collaborative pretend play with peers. Through play, kids experiment, problem-solve, and make discoveries.
As argued by Stuart Lester and Wendy Russell, ‘Play creates a brain that has increased ‘flexibility and improved potential for learning later in life’. Play based learning shapes the brains and neural pathways as our children grow and develop.
There are a number of ways to set up play based learning opportunities. Building blocks, puzzles, and educational games challenge their cognitive abilities, while pretend play, like engaging in a picnic, playing doctor, or role-playing with dolls, supports a child's development and helps them prepare for real-life situations. Play also fosters critical thinking as children encounter challenges and find creative solutions, which helps to strengthen neural pathways and strengthen their cognitive development.
Emotional Development and the Benefits of Play Based Learning
Play provides a safe space for children to explore their emotions, helping them process and express feelings, whether it's joy, frustration, fear, or excitement. Pretend play allows kids to take on various roles and understand different perspectives, fostering empathy and emotional intelligence. As Lennie Barlett explains, “One of the greatest benefits of playing is to assist with the development of social competence. Children can build relationships, learn to resolve conflicts, negotiate and regulate their behaviours.”.
Setting up pretend play and roleplaying opportunities allows children the chance to practice interacting with others and emotional regulation.
Additionally, playtime can reduce stress and anxiety, serving as an essential emotional outlet.
Benefits of Play Based Learning on Social Development
Interacting with others during play teaches children important social skills. They learn cooperation, negotiation, and conflict resolution as they share toys, take turns, and navigate the dynamics of group play. Play helps develop friendships, promoting a sense of belonging and building social confidence. It can also be used as an opportunity to teach the language and behaviours surrounding winning and losing, for example, "What do we say when we win or lose a game? Great game! Can we play again?" Moreover, it lays the foundation for communication skills, including listening, speaking, and non-verbal communication.
We live in a world where devices are increasingly more popular with children. In 2014, in a study by Claire Lerner and Rachel Barr, 38% ofchildren under the age of 2 had used a mobile device compared to only 10% of children two years prior. This has direct impact on opportunities for children to play organically - and as argued by Kerry Krafft and Laura Berk, preschoolers who engage in more open-ended pretend play compared to children who participate in more closed-ended tasks with teacher-determined goals exhibited more private speech, which is often used by children to regulate their behaviour.
The benefits of play based learning on a child’s social development are wide ranging and impact so much of their growth and emotional regulation.
Benefits of Play Based Learning on Motor Development
Play-based learning offers a multitude of benefits for the development of motor skills in children. Through activities like building with blocks, colouring, or engaging in imaginative play, children enhance both their fine and gross motor skills. Activities like playing catch or running in an obstacle course during imaginative adventures bolster gross motor skills, fostering physical coordination and balance.
Utilising playground activities like swings and climbing frames also assist with hand dexterity and vestibular awareness, strengthening not only motor skills but furthering on cognitive development and physical strength. These playful experiences are essential for children to develop the physical abilities they need for tasks such as handwriting, dressing themselves, and participating in various sports and recreational activities.
Imagination and Creativity and the Benefits of Play Based Learning
Play encourages children to let their imaginations run wild. Whether they're building fantastical worlds with LEGO bricks or inventing stories with action figures, playtime nurtures creativity.
It allows children to think outside the box, dream big, and envision possibilities. This creativity is a valuable asset that can serve them throughout their lives. Even if children are not enrolled informal education yet, there are still many ways to set up play based learning opportunities.
Strategies to facilitate play at different ages can include:
For babies (up to 12 months): Playtime needs to be supervised for safety, and activities like sensory play, peekaboo, high-contrast toys, water play, texture boards, and sensory bags can be engaging.
For toddlers (1-3): Activities like block building, pretend play, arts and crafts, building obstacle courses, water play, and balloon play are suitable for fostering play-based learning.
For kindy-age children (4-5): Encourage dress-up and fashion shows, sensory play, pretend play, art and craft projects, cooking and baking, letter and number recognition games, and more.
For school-aged kids (5+): Consider enrolling them in sports and team activities, involving them in cooking and baking, using complex construction sets, exploring arts and crafts, gardening, and organising scavenger hunts.
The Overwhelming Benefits of Play Based Learning
In a world where academic pressures and technology increasingly encroach on childhood, the benefits of play based cannot be overstated. It's through play that children explore, learn, and develop essential skills that will shape their futures. As parents, caregivers, and educators, we must recognise the value of play and prioritise its place in a child's daily life. The benefits of play based learning on a child’s emotional, social, physical and cognitive development are so wide ranging and universally acknowledged - we should never underestimate the power of play for our children.
So, let's encourage our children to play freely, embrace their imaginations, and nurture their development through the simple joy of play. After all, childhood should be a time of wonder, laughter, and endless possibilities. Explore the benefits of play-based learning with your child and help them shape, nurture and develop skills that will benefit them for years to come.