Free play is an important ingredient in the learning mix

Concerns about the damage to children’s wellbeing caused by a relentless focus on academic achievement and an unforgiving accountability-by-results culture — a 2019 survey of primary school heads included the comment “For those children in year 6 […] it’s intense, it’s grotty. It’s just reading, writing, maths, pretty much and I wouldn’t choose that for any child” — are well known and well founded. However, there are also fears that the growing tendency to structure more and more aspects of children’s lives — their sporting, cultural, social and play activities — is also hampering the development of key life skills such as creativity, problem solving and resilience. We must not lose sight of the social and educational benefits of free play in our efforts to cater adequately for more structured learning-through-play activities.

Our recent post Children need to be able to safely enjoy and learn through play highlighted the fact that children are playing out less than they used to, and that children of primary age are not playing out alone (ie without adult supervision) until they are significantly older than their parents were — as much as two years older.

Professor Helen Dodd, professor of child psychology at the University of Reading, is quoted in a recent Guardian article about what it refers to as the ‘schoolification’ of UK childhood:

This scholarisation of childhood, and the increase in time children spend in adult-led activities, decreases children’s time spent playing, removes opportunities for independence and denies them the simple joys and freedoms of childhood.

Helen Dodd, Professor of Child Psychology at the University of Reading

The Guardian also featured an article by Michael Rosen, writer and former children’s laureate, one of whose many books is about the importance of play. In his article he cautions against setting up what he calls “a false opposition” between free-flowing play and structured play: “Whether we’re parents, carers, teachers or anyone working with young children, we know that children move easily and often between free play and structured play. One is not better or worse than another, they each offer different experiences, different ways of thinking, and different kinds of learning.”

He goes on to describe watching a young child in a park approach a low dome that was in the middle of the path. What he witnessed, he says, was not purposeless, chaotic and without any learning outcome, as some people might say:

The girl had noticed the dome and decided to do a dance, skipping round and round it and over and over again. As she did so, she made up a song with the words “round” and “roundy-roundy” in it, working variations as she danced. The movement and the singing were created without fear of failure and involved a variety of trial-and-error activities: testing the size and height of the dome, testing the little gradients for their “danceability”, matching her song with the movements and vice versa, expressing the whole thing in words.

I call this “learning”. There’s a lot of cognition going on there, but I would also want to add in what the activity did for her sense of self and wellbeing. She had created something that worked: a fun song-and-dance routine, using the environment (the dome) that she had encountered. She held her arms out, taking up more space than we do when we hold ourselves folded up. It was a physical expression of confidence.

Michael Rosen, Skip the kindergarten cop routine: free play is vital for young children

Rosen’s article was praised on the letters page in subsequent days. One contributor (a fan of Steiner education so admittedly not a neutral observer) described a similar situation:

On Friday I watched two six-year-olds for a good 20 minutes as they tried to haul a friend up to the top of a metal slide – his shoes were too slippy to climb the slope. They tried a variety of methods: using a plank and a plastic spade as tools; one lowering another down while holding on to him firmly at the top; and so on. Eventually a third child joined them, and with a new approach and much determination on all sides they succeeded.

Geometry, physics, mechanics, knowledge of their own bodies and of materials, balance, strength, cooperation, persistence, communication … the list goes on. Learning of that sort is what prepares us for the real challenges we may have to meet in life.

from Annabel Gibb’s letter to the Guardian

Rosen’s comment that free play has at its heart the spirit of “trial and error without fear of failure” brings to mind the Joy of Not Knowing learning philosophy championed by Marcelo Staricoff, which we posted about recently. The JONK approach involves engaging children’s natural sense of curiosity and desire to find things out, removing the worry and fear of failure commonly associated with not knowing something, and allowing them to search for answers and try out possible solutions. Marcelo is featured on our Changemakers page.

The Forum for Life-Based Learning believes that we need to reform the school curriculum for young children. Nine learning themes — each with equal priority — form the framework through which we believe the individual subjects of the national curriculum should be taught, in order to equip children with the knowledge, skills and values to tackle the challenges they will meet as adults.

How we learn is a key consideration in the life-based learning approach, one that is informed by understanding of the way that the brain works and by the importance of establishing an appropriate emotional climate so that children are relaxed and ready for learning. Encouraging creativity, exploration and problem solving is also central to a life-based approach.

Posts on Related Themes

Image at the head of this article by DanaTentis from Pixabay

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