Do we want to force children to read today or do we want them to develop a love of reading for the future?
This question highlights one of the differences between academics and play-based learning in children’s early years.
Play is important to learning. Research tells us again and again that when children play, exploring and experimenting with material, they learn through those experiences. And as Dr. Rachel Langford, Director, of the School of the Early Childhood Education, at Ryerson University puts it, “It’s just impossible for very young children to learn in a passive way.”
“You can give children a worksheet or you can give them blocks, and the fact is, children will learn more with the blocks than they ever would with the worksheet,” says Dr. Langford. “Everybody needs to play, even adults, but we know it’s even more important in the early years.
Most people understand the importance of play for children; but the mistake parents and caregivers might make is to think play just means fun. Anxious for children to be ready for school, adults might push children to start doing drills, reading letters, and writing the alphabet.
“We should be able to go into a child care room and see and hear a kind of talk and laughter that creates a feeling of joy. We should all strive towards creating a climate of delight.”
Dr. Rachel Langford, Ryerson University
But preschoolers learn differently from school-age children and ‘play’ is not what children do ‘in between learning’. In fact, it is a serious learning strategy with a lot of research to support it! When children play, they:
- Develop and practice language skills and social interaction
- Try new ideas and learn to problem-solve
- Increase their confidence
- Create and express themselves in a variety of ways
Or, they can sit behind a desk and practice writing letters on a piece of paper.
“We want children to have opportunities to practice in all developmental areas (cognitive, social, emotional, and physical). A rich program is one with lots of different materials in which children can engage in a range of experiences to help them grow in all those areas. Children should have activities that promote all these skills both inside and outside,” according to Dr. Langford.
Caregivers can help parents see the benefits of play by communicating what they children are learning. For example, instead of saying “Yasmine played with the blocks today”, tell her parents what she learned. “Yasmine learned about three different shapes and counted how many blocks she can stack and she practiced a lot of her conversation skills with the other children.”
It’s also important for caregivers to play and communicate with the children to increase their learning. “Research shows the single most important indicator of quality of early childhood centres is teacher-child interactions. You can have the best materials, but it is not enough. It’s the interaction. Play is social, and our role is central to play,” explains Dr. Langford.
Some suggestions Dr. Langford makes to increase interaction with children include:
- Playing with them!
- Encouraging problem-solving, asking children questions
- Providing more material when children mention they need something
- Encouraging children to think of more ideas
- Encouraging discussions even during ‘routine’ activities (such as snack time)
According to Dr. Langford, play-based learning also means better behaviour in children. Spending so much time trying to ‘manage’ children (sit up straight, do this or do that) creates stress and negativity. If we force children to sit too long during “circle time” or do activities that are too difficult for them (and then teachers end up doing it for them), children can’t “self-regulate”, meaning they aren’t able to control their emotions and this results in challenging behaviours. However, if we allow children to play and learn at a level that fits with them, they will succeed.
For Dr. Langford, “half of the behaviour issues I see in centres are due to too many routines, sitting around, and too few positive interactions with adults. If all this changed, there would be no behaviour issues.” She suggests large amounts of time allocated for play with lots of interaction between caregiver and children and keeping group times like circle very short.
Most of all, Dr. Langford believes, “We should be able to go into a child care room and see and hear a kind of talk and laughter that creates a feeling of joy. We should all strive towards creating a climate of delight.”
“It means children are engaged in activities and they are enjoying what they are doing. This motivates them to grow and develop. If we enjoy it, we learn. Why make children do things that they are not interested in doing?”
How to include more play-based learning in our programs
Below is a list of just a few strategies you can implement for more play-based learning in your program. Take the time to observe and record the differences in behaviour; you may realize the success of learning through play after only a couple of weeks.
- Schedule plenty of time for play and keep organized group times like circle short
- Set up the environment to stimulate building play by providing lots of diverse materials
- Create time in the daily schedule for discussion and reflection on shared and individual work
- Help children reflect on their work and to problem solve
- Give children the time they need to stay with an activity if they are enjoying it; don’t stop the learning because your schedule says it’s time to read
- Make enough space available for the activity
- Be the role model to encourage ideas and differences
- Ask questions and engage verbally with the childrenPlay with the children!
Dr. Rachel Langford is the director of the School of the Early Childhood Education at Ryerson University. She has many years of experience working with different age groups (toddler, preschool and school-age) in a variety of early childhood settings including parent cooperative, preschool, and child care. She has extensive experience supporting children with special needs in both integrated and specialized settings.
Dr. Langford is also co-author of the textbook, Inclusion in Early Childhood Programs: Children with Exceptionalities (Thomson: Nelson, 2006) and the editor of the Checklist for Quality Inclusive Education: A Self-Assessment Tool and Manual.