The importance of play to a young child’s healthy development and learning has been documented beyond question by research. Yet play is disappearing in many early education centres and is being replaced by worksheets and structured teaching of literacy and numeracy skills!
“It is paradoxical that many educators and parents still differentiate between a time for learning and a time for play without seeing the vital connection between them.” – Leo F. Buscaglia
Children are being expected to master material beyond their developmental level, thus heightening their stress and depriving them of their chief means of dealing with that stress – creative play. There is a perception that the earlier children start to master the basic elements of reading, the more likely they are to succeed at school, but research shows that starting the teaching of phonics at an early age does not lead to better results later on. Research shows that children who are given the opportunity to develop in a play-based learning environment excel over those who had been subjected to early formal instruction. They were more advanced in reading and mathematics and were better adjusted socially and emotionally in school. They excelled in creativity, intelligence and oral expression.
The introduction of phonics, decoding and word recognition should be play-based and experiential rather than didactic and build a bridge from oral language to written language that has a strong foundation of oral language and imaginative thinking, which are developed through play. Time should be allowed for unstructured play and discovery, art and music, practising social skills, and the enjoyment of learning. Classic play materials like blocks, sand, water, props for dramatic play should be on offer every day to encourage rich experiences that young children need to become avid learners.
Play does not mean anything goes. There is a vast difference between superficial play and the complex make-believe play that can engage young children for an hour or more, fuelled by their own original ideas and rich use of language. A good pre-primary will provide a balance of child-initiated play in the presence of engaged teachers and more focused experiential learning, guided by teachers. Every child deserves the opportunity to develop and learn in a play-based, experiential pre-primary. Play works!
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