Play is learning: Thoughts about the importance of play in the lives of children

By: Diane Kashin, Ed.D, RECE. Play is an experience that includes the ability to bend or invent reality that has a strong internally based motivation. Children use the process of play to discover and learn about their world in many ways. The complex process of play and learning is most beneficial to children when they initiate the play. Contemporary and historical research about how children learn has identified play as the medium for learning (Dietze & Kashin, 2012).

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Children learn best when they have environments that support them in play. They learn best because they are learning with their whole being. They are learning across multiple domains of development in authentic and meaningful ways related to knowledge, culture, and relationships. Play is a “vehicle in which cultural attributes are passed from one generation to another. Through play, children communicate their feelings and ideas to other children and adults. Children gain physical development and experimentation opportunities. In essence, the subject of child’s play is complex as it formulates the foundation of child development” (Dietze & Kashin, 2012, p. 2). Play also forms the foundation of learning; therefore play is about children’s learning and development.


Children develop through play and learn through play. So why, in my recent visits to full day kindergarten programs throughout the Greater Toronto Area have I seen less playing and more working? Why, indeed especially in light of the document, “How Does Learning Happen?” that clearly states, “children succeed in programs that focus on active learning through exploration, play, and inquiry” (p. 4). So when during a visit, I am told by a kindergarten teacher, that she doesn’t believe that children learn through play, I am shocked. When I am outside with another teacher, watching the children in a fenced and paved area completely empty aside from one ball, I feel sorry for the children. When I spend a painful 30 minutes in a classroom where children are seated at tables working on worksheets with the designated early childhood educator walking around and helping, I am stunned to see the teacher sitting behind a desk completely ignoring the children.

I visit programs as part of my responsibility to supervise early childhood education degree students in their placements. I am sad that they have to experience these environments on a weekly basis. It is depressing to think that they must come up with their own learning experiences that match or fit the theme of the classroom rather than be responsive to the children’s interests. At least, I had one morning, at a school in the downtown core, where the children were actively exploring, playing and learning. I left covered in goop and playdough, smiling from ear to ear. I don’t know if I will ever forget the scene in the dramatic play centre where 3 girls were busy setting up a dinner party for 10 people who were “coming over” to meet 4 babies. I was delighted to see math happening during play and thought of many ways this play experience could be extended. Yet, there was more than math happening during the play, as one little girl, placed a baby doll under her shirt, pulled it out and placed it up to her chest. She looked at me and said, “I am feeding the baby”. When I noticed a toy bottle on the table, I asked, “So what is the bottle for?” She responded, “That’s for when we go out”. In my mind, I was thinking of many ways to build on this obvious interest in babies that would involve deep learning across multiple domains. I was so impressed by the partnership between the kindergarten teacher and the early childhood educator who created such a rich and wonderful environment for the children, I let them know as I was leaving how much I enjoyed my visit. They were very appreciative of my comments as they worried that others didn’t see the learning in the play.

I have written extensively about pedagogical documentation and I think back to the post where I offered suggestions for moving away from themes and incorporating documentation as a way to make learning visible in the play of children. Documentation is the medium to make this learning visible and when the documentation focuses on play, it helps others to see and reflect upon the importance of play-based learning. There has been support from our provincial government to document learning but obviously there are challenges and not all children are being given the gift of play.

Oh, how I wish that every child could experience what it is like to play in a Reggio inspired early learning environment just like in the classroom shown in this news clip I am proud of the classroom teacher, Andrea as one of our friends from forest school and a participant in our 2014 Reggio Summer Intensive training program. How can we help others see what Andrea sees – that children learn through play, exploration and inquiry – indoors and outdoors? A commitment to professional learning is important, as educators, we always should be challenging ourselves to learn more. I can see that there are initiatives elsewhere that are designed to support educators grappling with new and old ideas about play and learning and I hope there will be a play movement right here in our own province and all over the world as play is essential to human and social development.

Please let the children PLAY!

3 thoughts on “Play is learning: Thoughts about the importance of play in the lives of children

  1. Pingback: Step Away from the Photocopier: Learning through Play #nomoreworksheets | Technology Rich Inquiry Based Research

  2. Pingback: Why I have decided to be an advocate of nature-based early learning – Learn with nature

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