Play is a Powerful Thing

A few weeks ago I went to visit a local primary school after quite a long search for a suitable place for my own children. When I arrived at the school I found the year 5 teacher dancing around the maypole with his whole class to “Don’t stop me now!” He looked like he was having the time of his life, and the children were utterly engaged by his willingness to join in and play. I nearly joined in myself! As he skipped around he yelled to me “This IS educational, I promise!” And that was when I knew that I’d found the right school for my children. A school that values play and how effective it is as a learning tool.

Play is so greatly undervalued by our society and certainly by policy makers and politicians, and yet play is a vital part of what it is to be human. It is central to learning, to brain development and to creativity. Without play, our learning is significantly poorer. 

Think back to your own childhood for a moment, recall some of your happiest times and your most favourite toys. Recall the sounds you made as you played, the texture of that toy in your hand, the smell of your toy and the colour it was. Stay in that memory, that precious piece of time, hold on to it. That is what it feels like to play.

With that thought in your mind, now come back to the present. Has your play in childhood influenced what you have become as an adult? I can say for certain that my play as a child absolutely made me who I am now. I used to play “schools” in the shed. My mother painted the shed for me and turned it into a classroom for my toys. I would spend hours calling the register and writing on my chalk board.

As adults, play is equally important and we often play with ideas in our heads, draw things out, work things through, change things and come up with new ideas via this process. Big creative companies, such as Google, have now recognised how valuable playfulness is and have designed spaces in which their staff can play and create. 

Whatever age we are, play is a useful tool. When I am teaching play is central to everything we do.

We play with words, we make puppets, we create stories, we build worlds, we animate, and we play with language, with rhymes and with songs. We play scrabble and countdown, and I have to say I have learned more about spelling, vocabulary and the origins of words from these games than I ever learned from spelling tests.

We play with numbers and shape and construction. We play shops and we bake cakes to learn about fractions and weight and about how nice cake is!

We play with music, we make sounds, we sing, we create, we play with paints and colours and textures. 

We go outside and play in nature, climbing trees, running, jumping, dancing, going on bear hunts, looking at bugs, building dens and camping in the woods. Play, especially in nature, really engulfs all of your senses.

We play with friends. We chat, we laugh, we run around and create imaginary worlds with these very special people. Play is absolutely key to friendship, it’s not often that I sit down with a friend to solve a quadratic equation, but it is often then I laugh with my friends, talk to my friends and feel more human with my friends.

I would like to point out here that I currently teach independently, not within the state system, where I am free from many classroom restraints. I’ve also been a home educator for my own children this past year. However, that doesn’t mean that there is no space for play in every classroom, as demonstrated by the maypole dancing teacher.

I’m not suggesting that we spend our entire lives playing at things. Sometimes we have to conform and follow certain rules. For example, I wouldn’t want my surgeon to play at operating on me, and I wouldn’t want my pilot to play at flying the aeroplane. But I can almost certainly guarantee you that throughout their development there would have been elements of play that led them to where they are in their chosen careers.

We know that play is important, research repeatedly show this, and yet there is less time in our school day for children to just play. Break times are shorter and fewer, children are not allowed to play on the playground before school. Children miss parts of their play time if they don’t keep up with their work or they don’t conform to the expected behaviours in class, and I question the benefit of this.

Play helps us to develop ideas and thoughts without fear of failure. Play allows us to explore. Play informs us. Play helps us to learn ways to interact with others. Play is inclusive. 

I know that I am preaching to the already converted. I really feel that the policy makers need to stop and rethink their ideas on what education looks like.

Children NEED to play. It is utterly essential to their development. Every classroom across the country is filled with experts in play, let them use their skills, let them use a medium that is completely familiar and natural. Let them be children.

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