What Does The Research Say About Learning Through Play?

5 min read


by TeachThought Staff

Sometimes the replacement is better than the original, and we don’t miss the original for more than a brief moment: think whiteboards v. blackboards, chalk, and erasers; or copy machines v. mimeograph machines and purple ‘masters.’

But then sometimes we look around and wonder why something important seems to have disappeared, like play, for example. Where has play gone–for both children and adults?

Think back to your childhood – what memories are the strongest? Probably the times you took off for an afternoon with friends, exploring a stream, playing an invented game in a vacant lot, finding a new neighborhood in your town, or supplying a hideout with forbidden candy bars. And yet, today, unstructured play for children has become an endangered species, replaced by organized sports, karate and dance lessons, and screen time.

Many families simply don’t have much unscheduled time – parents’ work schedules, long commutes, and children’s activities contribute to the logistical challenges of managing the week. Some families live in neighborhoods that may not be safe for outside play; others are concerned that their children need every possible advantage to compete successfully, and pile on tutoring, enrichment classes, and more.

To clarify, the need for play is not just about the need for physical activity. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that recess be unstructured, free play that is a complement to physical education, not a substitute for it. Play, they say, “is essential to developing social and emotional ties…. [and] is a natural tool that children can and should use to build their resilience.” (PEDIATRICS, Volume 129, Number 1, January 2012)

Play helps young people discover and connect to their own interests, exploring what they want to do at their own pace and for their own satisfaction, rather than working for adult praise or trophies. Through play, they acquire mastery of their world, setting their own boundaries for risk-taking and experimentation. What can I build with what’s at hand? How can I improvise? How do I negotiate with my peers? The lessons of inventiveness, resilience, and persistence are an integral part of play.

Research also indicates that play impacts brain development in young children by changing the connections of neurons in the brain’s executive control center, important in problem-solving, planning, and regulating emotions. (NPR, August 6, 2014, “Scientists Say Child’s Play Helps Build A Better Brain”)

Despite the evidence, schools have been whittling away at recess as they devote more time to academic subjects and test preparation. The disappearance of play is not peculiar to the United States, however; a New Zealand study found that nearly half of their children do not play daily, despite three-quarters reporting that their preference is outdoor activity. And a recent German study out of the University of Hildesheim indicates another reason to make time for play – researchers found that adults who reported significant childhood time in free play enjoyed high levels of social success as adults. The flexibility and problem-solving skills learned through free play translate to adaptability in adulthood.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “It is a happy talent to know how to play.” Honing this talent is just as important for adults as it is for children. Play makes people happy. Playing with pets is fun. Playing with children is fun. You don’t need permission to play. Try it. And let’s make sure that play does not go the way of the manual typewriter or the floppy disk. Unlike those, play would be deeply missed.

What Does The Research Say About Learning Through Play?

Research across various fields, including education, psychology, and neuroscience, supports the importance of learning through play for children’s development. Here are some key findings and studies that support this concept:

1. Jean Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development

Piaget, a renowned developmental psychologist, emphasized the role of play in children’s learning and cognitive development. He believed that play allows children to actively construct knowledge, develop problem-solving skills, and explore their environment.

2. Lev Vygotsky’s Sociocultural Theory

Vygotsky’s theory highlights the importance of social interactions in learning. Play provides a context for children to engage in social interactions, cooperative play, and imaginative play, which contribute to their cognitive and socioemotional development.

3. The Power of Pretend Play

Numerous studies have shown the benefits of pretend play or make-believe play. It enhances children’s creativity, language development, problem-solving abilities, social skills, and emotional regulation. For example, research by Angeline S. Lillard and her colleagues in 2013 found that pretend play in preschool-aged children was associated with greater creativity and divergent thinking skills.

4. Play and Executive Function

Executive functions are cognitive processes involved in goal-directed behavior, self-control, and decision-making. Play activities that involve rule-following, planning, and problem-solving contribute to the development of executive function skills. A study by Adele Diamond and Kathleen Lee in 2011 highlighted the positive impact of physically active play on executive functions in young children.

5. Play-Based Learning in Education

Play-based learning approaches have gained recognition in early childhood education. Research by Elizabeth M. Graue and her colleagues in 2007 demonstrated that play-based kindergarten programs promote academic learning outcomes, as well as social and emotional development.

6. Neuroscience of Play

Neuroscientific studies have shown that play experiences stimulate brain development, particularly in regions associated with cognitive, emotional, and social functioning. Play activates the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in higher-order thinking skills. Sergio M. Pellis and Vivien C. Pellis conducted research in 2009 that demonstrated the relationship between play and brain development in animals.

7. Play and Emotional Well-being

Play supports emotional well-being by providing opportunities for emotional expression, stress reduction, and building resilience. It helps children process emotions, develop empathy, and practice self-regulation. Research by Anthony D. Pellegrini and Peter K. Smith in 2005 found that playful experiences contribute to positive social relationships and psychological well-being.


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