“Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.”
~ Albert Einstein
Why play-based learning?
The right brain develops first and does so by the time children are 3-4 years of age. The left brain, on the other hand, doesn’t fully come online until children are approximately seven years old; hence the first seven years being recognized as such a critical period in child development. Play-based education fits the developmental needs of children.
The left brain’s functionality is one of language, numeracy, literacy, analysis and time. It is the logical, calculating, planning, busy-bee part of us that keeps us anchored in the pragmatic world, and in past and future. The right brain, on the other hand, is responsible for empathy, intuition, imagination and creativity. It is where we wonder, dream, connect and come alive. Through the right brain we dwell in the space of no-time, in being absolutely present and our boundless sense of being. Being is primary; hence the right brain developing first; hence, human being, not human doing.
The play-based approach
Children are naturally motivated to play. A play-based program builds on this motivation, using play as a context for learning. In this context, children can explore, experiment, discover and solve problems in imaginative and playful ways.
A play-based approach involves both child-initiated and teacher-supported learning. The teacher encourages children’s learning and inquiry through interactions that aim to stretch their thinking to higher levels. Teachers take an active role in guiding children’s interactions in the play. Children are supported in developing social skills such as cooperation, sharing and responding to ideas, negotiating, and resolving conflicts.
Play also supports positive attitudes to learning. These include imagination, curiosity, enthusiasm, and persistence. The type of learning processes and skills fostered in play cannot be replicated through rote learning, where there is an emphasis on remembering facts.
The skilled early childhood teacher highly values and nurtures the child’s fundamental creative and imaginative nature with countless opportunities and environments for exploration and play. Play can provide children with the opportunity to develop social, emotional, physical and creative skills in addition to cognitive ones. Preschool and kindergarten programs that strike a healthy balance between stimulating work and engaging play prepare the child for success in primary school and beyond. They empower these individuals to go beyond functioning in a competitive world to making valuable changes in that world.
Children with stronger social skills do better in school, in the workplace, and in life. Child-directed play and modeling of helping behaviors are key to the development of social skills and need be prioritized in early education. We agree with the research that indicates that social skill development should be an intentional outcome of all educational experiences for children from preschool through elementary school. Getting along with others, being helpful and cooperative, and demonstrating empathy certainly make for better community. Additionally, a child’s early skills with building positive relationships with peers and with adults are correlated with positive life outcomes overall.
Research on the brain demonstrates that play is a scaffold for development, a vehicle for increasing neural structures, and a means by which all children practice skills they will need in later life. Because play often involves physical activity, it is encourages the development and refinement of children’s gross and fine motor skills and their body awareness. As children vigorously and joyfully use their bodies in physical exercise, meaningful work and unstructured play, they simultaneously refine and develop skills that enable them to feel confident, secure, and self-assured.
Planning, self-awareness, and self-control—what psychologists refer to as “executive functions”—predict positive school and life outcomes. Studies show that children develop executive functions through experience. Children use components of executive functions when they make decisions and interact with peers in everyday classroom settings. For example, they use planning to generate ideas for what to play, while working memory and inhibitory control help with remembering and following the rules of play. As children get older, they will need an efficient working memory to process all of the information that they encounter in the upper grades.
The need for developing skills of complex problem solving, critical thinking, creativity and collaboration are essential for 21st century learning. These skills are built and enhanced by learning through play across the lifespan.
How does play-based education build the foundations for learning?
Play-based education embodies a plethora of activities integrated in the day that encourage school readiness, build academic capacities and create a lifelong love of learning.
An important literacy skill for reading is acquisition of language, as shown by children’s vocabulary and capacity to articulate their thoughts. The depth of a preschooler’s language skills—like early conceptual mathematics—is more predictive of long-term reading than simple measures of early literacy like letter recognition.
Hands-on experiences in art, science, and making – such as cooking, playing with sand and sticks and natural materials, painting, knitting and building –are terrific, and developmentally appropriate, ways for young children to build their fine motor coordination and the musculature for later writing.
A powerful indicator and predictor of long-term success with mathematics—and with other academic domains—is early conceptual mathematics. By helping children see mathematics in the world around them, using rich mathematical language as we work with children, building a growth mindset in mathematics by modeling our own use and learning of mathematics we create strong foundations for mathematical capacities.
Resources on play and play-based education
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