by The Social Quotient

Education, Learning, Play -

The Value of Unstructured Play in Learning

We have just returned from a glorious trip to Western Australia. Wide open spaces. So much to do and explore. Our boys' endless supply of energy channelled to good use with fresh air and plenty of exercise. 

I remember a particularly languid wintry afternoon at the Yallingup Maze. The two of them had already done their playground rounds a few times, played their excellent range of Smart Games (yes, we now have an online store Sensational Play selling these too - do check it out!) in the cafe over crispy bacon and egg sandwiches, and spent some time rolling down the slope to the wooded area where there is a most amazing play area consisting mostly of tree stumps and an old fallen elevated tree with regrowth.

Playing at the lovely Yallingup Maze

You'd think they'd had enough and been tired by then.

Just as we were making plans to leave, our older son ran towards an open field, saying, "Mummy, may I just run all the way to the end and back again?" 

It seemed like a reasonable request, so I said yes. The field was a sizeable one, with what looked like a farmhouse on one end of it and a quiet road on the other. Z began sprinting with wild abandon across it, arms akimbo like an aeroplane upon take off.

His brother, realising that their fun had not ended there, came zooming down the slope and came to an abrupt halt when he was enticed by a long stick at the end of the incline. At almost 3, our little E cannot resist a good stick. His latest exclamation has been, "Thank you, God, I found a stick!", which he says after finding a particularly satisfying tool of choice. His sticks become swords, spears, weapons of utter destruction against bad guys, when wielded in his little hands. 

"Speak softly and carry a big stick!"

 "Come on, Mummy, let's go fight the bad guys!" he says. Having been recruited into his powerful army, I grabbed my own stick and marched loyally behind my mighty commander into the battle field. We soon recruited Kor Kor and Daddy as well, and were pretty soon marching around the field, yelling out commands and shooting at bad guys lurking behind trees. The delight on our little one's face was obvious.

The joy of unstructured play!

 I have been learning what it means to let our children play, unhindered. It never ceases to amaze us how they can amuse themselves for hours with such simple things like sticks and rocks, some earth, handfuls of sand, a small puddle. 

Yet so many children I have encountered in my career as a teacher seem to have either lost that sense of curiosity and make believe, or yearn to have the chance for some me-time, some simple happy moments of play - but do not have the time to do so because their parents feel they should fill it up with activities and assessment books. I once even met a girl whose mother would not let her take walks during her exam revision period for fear she would lose out on precious time studying!

We do not realise that it is through giving our children the opportunity to move about and play, that we are actually helping them increase their capacities to learn even more effectively.

The beauty of pretend play. What do you get when Toy Story's Buzz Lightyear flies to the rescue of Happyland citizens

who have been kidnapped and held hostage on an iconic wooden bridge?

There has been so much recent research on how children need to play in order to learn. 

Play improves language and cognition, as well as social affect. 

Psychologist Edward Fisher analyzed 46 published studies of the cognitive benefits of play (Fisher 1999). He found that “sociodramatic play”—what happens when kids pretend together—“results in improved performances in both cognitive-linguistic and social affective domains.”

Play also helps with developing those STEM skills, which we all want our children to have in order to prepare them for the jobs of the future.

Recently, the field of education has experienced a push to develop the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) skills that are important to success in the 21st century. Through play with objects – blocks, sand, balls, crayons, and paper – children begin to understand logical scientific thinking, such as the concept of cause and effect. They also practice mathematical skills such as measurement, quantification, classification, counting, ordering, and part-whole relations (Gelfer & Perkins, 1988; Ginsberg, Inoue & Seo, 1999; Piaget, 1962; Ness & Farenga, 2007). The informal understanding children gain through experimentation, observation, and comparison in play lays the foundation for higher-order thinking and later learning of formal STEM concepts (Bergen, 2009; Ginsberg, 2006; Shaklee et al., 2008 as cited in Fisher et al., 2011; Tepperman, 2007). 


Mark and I have recently set up an online store, Sensational Play, for this very purpose. We felt burdened to give children in Singapore a chance to play - and this includes children of all ages and abilities, whether or not they may have been labelled as hyperactive, slow, have poor social skills, or have a hearing/ visual impairment. 

I have met so many parents and teachers who want to help the children they work with or parent, but who are not sure what to do when a boy fidgets in class or chews on everything in his pencil box; who are lost when a girl constantly seems to have issues with her handwriting, or seems lost or dreamy in class.

There are very practical solutions to help these children. I have seen the wonders of a wad of putty in one of my students' hands in helping her to focus when she is low in energy and attention after a long day of school; I have seen how a cool Space Explorers suit can help calm our son down when he is overexcited. I have seen our other son's face light up when he fits the wooden pieces together in his puzzle to solve a problem. There is truly great value in play, and our kids need to move in order to learn.

Our older son having a wild time in his Space Explorer suit.

Angela Hanscom, an pediatric occupational therapist who has recently been featured in an article in The Washington Post explaining her view on why it seems there are so many hyperactive kids in schools today, says,

Children are going to class with bodies that are less prepared to learn than ever before. With sensory systems not quite working right, they are asked to sit and pay attention. Children naturally start fidgeting in order to get the movement their body so desperately needs and is not getting enough of to “turn their brain on.” What happens when the children start fidgeting? We ask them to sit still and pay attention; therefore, their brain goes back to “sleep.”

Fidgeting is a real problem. It is a strong indicator that children are not getting enough movement throughout the day. We need to fix the underlying issue. Recess times need to be extended and kids should be playing outside as soon as they get home from school. Twenty minutes of movement a day is not enough! They need hours of play outdoors in order to establish a healthy sensory system and to support higher-level attention and learning in the classroom.

In order for children to learn, they need to be able to pay attention. In order to pay attention, we need to let them move.

There's so much our kids can learn when they're given the space and luxury of time to move their bodies, engage in their worlds of make-believe, build towers out of blocks that reach the sky. You may be surprised at how attentive, focused and quick to learn they might turn out to be.

Our almost-3-year-old loves the Smart Games that we have brought in for our

online store. Here he is playing Camelot Junior, a puzzle game teaching children

how to find creative ways in order to help the knight rescue the princess.

I've also been learning to step back and let our boys have a go at whatever they have decided to do during their play. Let them take some risks, even argue or fight a little - come to their own conclusions about whose idea they should use, or if they should come up with something new. There is so much they are learning through play - creativity, conflict management, logical thinking, problem solving. And they are always moving their bodies, which is great for their central nervous systems and self-regulation.

When I woke up from an afternoon nap today, they both had their  potty-training doll with what looked like play dough plastered over his eyes, swaddled in a  t-shirt. Mark and I have no idea what was going on, but the boys took the poor doll in for a bath and then went off for a family dinner robed in their bath towels, galloping like horses. Who knows what they'll be up to next!

This post was first published on our sister site Parenting on Purpose on 6 July 2015.


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