“Play-based Learning” has become something of a mantra in most Early Years programs. But few teachers are able to articulate what this actually means or looks like in practice. Play is central to the development of thinking skills, conceptual development, sense of self and others and it forms an essential element of our programs throughout the School.
In the Kindergarten, the children together with their teachers as ‘play partners’, engage in imaginative ‘PlayWorlds’ as a platform to investigate more deeply, allowing them to develop important symbolic representation and abstract thinking skills.
But the significance of ‘play’ extends way beyond the early years. Sadly, many schools are quick to set up and perpetuate the dichotomy of ‘work’ and ‘play’, losing sight of the value and the legitimacy of play as a core human need and a key to lifelong, rich and self-directed learning. As a society we elevate ‘work’ to the serious world of adulthood and relegate ‘play’ to the trivial pursuits of childhood. We do this with such every day, unthinking directions as ‘Stop playing and get on with your work’ and ‘Stop playing, this is serious”. Froebel maintained that “play is children’s work”, the very opposite of the idea that children don’t do anything serious. Engaging in play is the basis for creativity and valuing new ideas. Playing, making believe, acting, experimenting, tinkering, improvising, all of these are forms of play and are the pathways to new connections, generative mistakes, unintentioned outcomes and life changing inventions.
At Preshil, respect for children’s play and an understanding of its significance has been fundamental to the School’s approach to learning and is based on the pioneering work of Friedrich Froebel, who was a key influence on Margaret Lyttle’s thinking.
Schools too often force play out of learning altogether – it’s something you are not allowed to do – so play becomes disobedience, subversion and finally transgression. Organised, competitive sport is offered as legitimate play – with the serious object of winning. Playing sport is rigidly controlled through rules and penalties, actually the opposite of play.
The spectacle of adults with authority ascribing enormous significance to trivial matters justified as ‘work’ and dismissing some of the most challenging and inventive learning opportunities as mere play is not just embarrassing, but creates a dangerous divide between what teachers want to teach and what children need to learn.
The long-term significance of stripping play out of education leads us to the current situation where corporations have to teach their adult employees to play – in order to activate the long-dormant creativity that schools have unthinkingly suppressed.