“Children learn through play.”
“Play is children’s work.”
When we say “children learn through play”, we’re recognizing and acknowledging the important process that play, as a self-directed, intrinsically motivated activity has for providing opportunities for learning and development. When we say, “play is children’s work”, we’re demonstrating value for play as an essential aspect of children’s learning, and validating its role as a centerpiece in early childhood programs.
But even though children learn through play, is all play learning?
When I mentored student teachers, their lesson plan assignments always ended with a section for them to self-evaluate the activity they had planned. Often, the student teacher would simply write, “The children had fun.” I see and hear this same evaluation in online forums, in product reviews of classroom materials, and in discussions with teachers of all levels of experience. “The kids loved it!” “They had so much fun!” “They were really interested in what they were doing!”
Is fun – or interest – or enjoyment – the same thing as learning?
Play can have many purposes – some of them involve the sheer enjoyment of the activity, or the total engagement in the moment – the “flow” as referred to in psychology. Finding joy, fun, and flow in what we do are essential to who we are as human beings, and we want to provide those opportunities for children. But just because an activity was fun, doesn’t mean that learning happened.
“Learning”, by definition involves change. It involves development and growth. Children learn through play when those play experiences lead them to do something new, or think about things in a new way. It isn’t enough for children to “just play” - teachers need to provide classroom environments, materials, and interactions that encourage children to share ideas, negotiate, experiment, hypothesize, and evaluate. Teachers need to encourage children to say “What can I do with this?” and provide them scaffolding to extend their thinking and encourage them not only to play, but reflect on what they are doing. Teachers need to ask open ended questions, provide feedback, and help children think about their own thinking.
Play is the starting point, not the finish line. Play can - and should - be learning, but there are many steps along the way. And many things that teachers can – and should – do to help children get there.