Playful Learning: A Continuum of Play

Playful Learning- A Continuum | Childhood 101

Yesterday I talked about my frustration at society’s incomprehension that young children learn best through play. What I think we sometimes fail to appreciate is that there are different types of play. I see it as a continuum;

At one end, there is ‘free play’ where children are completely free to choose what to play with, how to play and who (if anyone) to play with, without adult intervention.

Somewhere in the middle of the continuum, sits play that is somewhat influenced by an adult. Say a preschool environment where the educator has observed a group of children’s interest in playing pirates and responds by adding eye patches and bandannas to the block play area where the children have been busy working together to make a pirate ship from the big blocks. The educator is aware of the interest and has provided some props to encourage further interaction and exploration but is not directly teaching the children about pirates. She/he might drop in and out of the children’s play, making verbal observations about what they see as the children go about their play.

At the other end is what I like to call “playful enterprise” – a more purposefully plannedĀ  but still playful approach to engage a child or group of children in achieving a particular objective (whether it be learning a skill, behaviour or acquiring new information). For example, the educator sets up a play restaurant and plays with the children in the space, modelling and encouraging the children to use the words, “please,” and, ‘thank you,” as they take orders and receive their meals.

All these types of play are important. Children need time to play unencumbered by adult influences and children need time to play with interested adults.

Ideally, the adult contributes by;

  • Providing toys and materials for play
  • Providing time for exploration and discovery
  • At times, interacting with children in ways that enhance their learning and result in longer, more complex episodes of play
  • Providing new experiences for children to enrich and extend their thinking
  • Posing challenging questions
  • Helping children learn from each other through guiding and role modeling

And quite often the adult’s role changes throughout the play experience. Let me give you an example. This afternoon, Immy and I went outside and it was quite hot. I decided to set up some water play for Immy, an activity she really enjoys. I gathered some plastic cups and bottles and scoops and a small funnel (so here I was operating around the middle of the play continuum, setting the scene for the play). Immy jumped in and enjoyed the water and the various containers and I sat back and watched (free play, allowing Immy to explore the materials). Eventually Immy came upon the funnel, she has never used a funnel before. After spending a little time observing her inquisitiveness with regards to the funnel I sat with her and showed her how the funnel worked and we filled the bottle together (playful enterprise). Then I sat back and she continued to play. When she came to using the bottle and funnel a second time, she was having trouble with the bottle falling over with the weight of the funnel. After observing her trying a number of times, I made a suggestion about how to help the bottle stand (again moving to the middle of the play continuum).

Why is this type of play important? Because young children learn best through active experiences with people, materials and ideas. Play provides motivation for learning.

I tell parents that it is the same in adult learning. Your boss enrols you in a course that you have absolutely no interest in. In all likelihood, you will find it boring and come away with little new knowledge. Contrast this to you enrolling yourself in a course to learn more about a hobby you really enjoy. You are switched on and motivated to learn and so you are more likely to come away having retained lots of information and new skills.

Humans are emotional beings. The stronger the emotion associated with information, the more likely it is to be remembered. Learning that is pleasurable stays with us longer. Making learning fun for children is one very important way to ensure that it lasts.

Play does just that.

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  1. My kids have plenty of time for free play however I love playing with them. Tea parties, dressups and pushing my son around on his bike while chasing his sister are all great fun. When my daughter asks I sit with a pencil and scribe a story for her to illustrate. I never make her but she loves it.

  2. miss carly says:

    This is exactly how I plan each day within my centre. I have areas within the room where the children are able to access what they would like from the shelves {free play}; then there are those that I have set up to further their interest {i.e. putting cars into block corner as the children were making roads; adding road signs + markers}; and then there are the times when i want to 'teach' them and i will sit throughout the entire play {i.e. i made a cupcake {drawing} and had the children paint the cupcake – as i explained to the other carers i would sit during this task, discuss cupcakes {their interest} and painting convention {not to take too much paint and allowed them to dry their brush after washing – that had never been done before!}

    Children love all types of play. Even when I set up the room with specific ideas in each area, I still give the children to option to choose something different. And then i can see where there interest lie and go from there.

  3. katepickle says:

    Fabulous way to explain how complex 'play' is! I often think people hear the word 'play' and think it is simplistic and basic when actually it is so complex and interrelated into so many areas of life and learning.

  4. This week I posted a blog on this same topic. It is something that I will be focusing on in the next while when talking with the adults that attend my program.
    I like the example you used in reference to an adult having to take a class instead of them choosing to for themselves.

  5. I post about musical play in 2010. You are correct – play is so important in our lives. No matter our age, play is the thing that enriches us.

  6. Kimberly Ferrara says:

    Great article! It is the exact reason I started my business called Wigglekids! It is fitness through fun….but a lot of learning is happening. Our WiggleTots program starts at age 2 and goes up to age 5. Then we do things like Drums Alive for the older children…..drumming to work on everything from social skills to math! Playing is the universal language all children speak…so why not teach in that language!

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