United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child Article 31 states the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts (Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights [OHCHR] | Convention on the Rights of the Child, 2019).
Play is one of the critical aspects of children lives and as described by Froebel it is the highest development in their childhood (Shree & Shukla, 2016). And I think it is one of the innate qualities that children are born with, and families and their closed ones have been using it to teach children intentionally and unintentionally since ages. In early childhood education, there is a long history of the use of play and it has been a central element of it for some time, although, the way it has been used varies throughout times and settings (Arthur, Beecher, Death, Dockett, & Farmer, 2018). It can also be referred to as the language of children because through play they can communicate or express their thoughts and feelings (Shree & Shukla, 2016).
Although the term ‘play’ can have simple to complex meaning, finding an exact definition might be hard. However, it can be defined as “a behavior that is distinguished by specific features that represent a unique way of being: a way of perceiving, feeling and acting in the world. The act of playing, where a children appropriate time and space for their own needs and desires, has value for developing a range of flexible and adaptable responses to the environment” (Lester & Russell, 2010 as cited in Arthur et.al., 2018, p. 102).
Importance of play and learning
“Play is central to how children learn: the way they make sense of their world; the way they form and explore friendships; the way they shape and test hypotheses about their intellectual, social, emotional, and physical environments” (Pedagogy of Play | Project Zero, 2019). It creates joy, pleasure, triggers imagination, and stimulates the brain and body beyond their normal activities. It is more than a mere indulgence and is essential to children’s physical and mental health, overall well-being and development (Lester & Russell, 2010). It helps in the development of physical, social, cognitive skills and even helps children to learn a language.
Play offers the possibility to enhance adaptive capabilities and resilience among children and can be viewed as a self-protecting process (Lester & Russell, 2010). They learn how to adapt to a different situation, negotiate among others, express and control emotions, make friends or connection, follow rules, solve problems and so on. According to Vygotsky, play like socio-dramatic or make-believe help children create an imaginary situation, set rules and follow those and act out roles (Bodrova & Leong, 2015). Form interactionist perspectives, these sorts of play also help in the language development of children as they experiment with it while taking on different roles in a different context (Fellowes & Oakley, 2010). Good quality play also helps to organize neuronal systems which will ultimately mediate more complex psycho-motor, social, emotional, cognitive skills and positive learning outcomes including literacy and numeracy strategies (Anning, Cullen & Fleer, 2004). It can be through simple tasks like playing with colorful balls by numbering them and passing to other friends and others can tell colours. Not only they will learn the name of colours and how to count them but will also social skills by sharing and motor skills by passing to their friends.
They can also learn the concept of cause and effect (Shree & Shukla, 2016). For instance, the simple action of clapping hands creates sound can help them understand the concept. However, if there is a persistent absence of play, it may interrupt emotion-regulation systems, diminishing children’s physical, social and cognitive competence in the long run (Pellis & Pellis, 2006 as cited in Lester & Russell, 2010). There are plenty of researches, theories, and practical examples, that can prove that play is essential to help children learn in various ways and develop multiple skills.
Play in EYLF Principles and practices
Teaching through play has been recognized worldwide and also in Australia. Play-based learning is an essential part of Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF) where it has been described as ‘a context for learning through which children organize and make sense of their social worlds, as they engage actively with people, objects and representations’ (Department of Education, Employment and Workplace [DEEWR], 2009). Learning through play and intentional teaching has been recognized as one of the elements of EYLF. It has also been emphasized that educators should be responsive and should take children’s ideas and play as an important basis for curriculum decision making. The idea has been drawn from various theoretical perspective including development theories and theorists like Piaget encouraging educators planning play-based experiences and providing an environment appropriate for children’s unique and holistic development. It has also been linked to all the outcomes and elements and how those can be achieved through play has been outlined.
Play as a teaching method in early childhood
Children are and should be central to everything when it comes to early childhood education and care. And as an educator to be, I think there is no one right way of teaching. To use play as a teaching method is an innate quality of human beings. Even animals are found to be using play as a method to teach survival skills to their small one (Shree & Shukla, 2016). And as mentioned earlier, I think play has been part of teaching since ages and that people have been using regardless of perspectives and theory and unintentionally. As an example, from my personal experience, I have built structures with everyday objects just to have play with my nieces and nephew without any knowledge of how it has been helping them in their fine motor skills.
Rather than focusing on one approach and theory, I think an educator should use a holistic approach and draw on ideas from various theories and use different approaches as per requirement. To begin with, learning should always be progressive and drawing on the concept of Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), as an educator I think one should always seek a way to collaborate children with more experience or capable children or even own self (Bodrova & Leong, 2015) (DEEWR, 2010). It can be done in child-initiated and child-led play, for instance, even in pretend play one can always ask questions about roles they are playing, what one particular character should do, etc. and intentionally scaffolding on their ideas by introducing new ideas or way. Scaffoldings by adults or even by other children provide support to children’s learning or independent understandings or skills as stated in socio-cultural theories (DEEWR, 2010) (Jordan, 2004). By being part of the play an educator can monitor and even can set boundaries if needed. These practices not only help children learn but also help gain secure, respectful and reciprocal relationships (DEEWR, 2009).
Similarly, physically active play allows children to develop different kinds of motor skills promoting significant health and well-being benefits (Barblett, 2010). It can be done through daily schedule including active indoor and outdoor physical play, integration of music, movement, creative expression and using symbolic languages as outlined by Reggio Emilia approach (Edwards, 1993). As play happens in a physical and social context, it helps with the development of social skills among children. It also helps in the emotional intelligence of children such as empathy as they begin to understand other points of view, social skill as they start negotiating rules, resolve conflict, self-regulation as they act as their own agents and make their own choices.
And when it comes to outcomes of EYLF, pretend play and group play which have been mentioned above can help achieve all five of them (DEEWR, 2009). For instance, during play they can learn to interact in relation to others with care, empathy, respect contributing to outcome one which is children having a strong sense of identity. Similarly, they develop sense of belonging to groups of their peers linking to the second outcome of connection. Furthermore, during physically active play or risky play such as educator monitored tree climbing activity, they develop a sense of responsibility for their physical well-being contributing to the third outcome. In the same way, games and play boost their enthusiasm, imagination, creativity, cooperation, problem-solving skills leading to the achievement of outcome four of children being a confident and involved learner. And finally, outcome five can be achieved as throughout play they interact verbally and non-verbally to convey their messages and thoughts.
And in order to do this, educators can plan the environment intentionally such as physical environment, social and emotional environment, the intellectual environment and the temporal environment (Barblett, 2010). This includes a physical layout of space, furniture, and resources arranged in such a way that it provokes, invite and encourage children to explore, learn and enquire about what they see and feel. And also by assisting children to make connections with others, develop friendships and regulate behaviors which would set the emotional and social tone of the environment. And in other times children should be left to develop their themes and ideas and play freely where they can develop their conversation, question, and queries which will extend children’s learning.
As EYLF is based on sound proven early childhood pedagogy and practice principles, educators should know what play is, its importance, how to implement, assess a play-based program and their role in it, and how to develop play-based learning curriculum that suits the need of the children (Barblett, 2010).