Most Childhood Educators would agree that children learn through play. Some even describe it as the work of children. Speech and Language Clinicians know that children will demonstrate a concept or knowledge of how words or ideas link in play, before they actually use the language to comment on what they are doing. Stuart Brown in his bestselling book on play reminds us that play is a profound biological process. "It energizes us, enlivens us, eases our burdens, renews our natural sense of optimism and is intensely pleasurable. Most importantly, play shapes the brain, makes animals smarter and more adaptable, fosters empathy and makes possible complex social groups. It lies at the very core of creativity and innovation".
Play plays a critical part in social relationships right throughout our lives. Children who have difficulties with imaginary play struggle with social relationships in the playground setting. Providing play experiences for these children is critical to helping them develop a sense of self-esteem and the ability to feel happiness. Stuart Brown points out that rough and tumble play has been shown to be necessary for the development and maintenance of social awareness, co-operation, fairness and altruism.
In our haste to improve our literacy outcomes and have our schools shine on national educational websites, we are educating our children in a formal way before they are ready to do so. Stuart Brown states that "when play is denied over a long term our mood darkens... and we become incapable of feeling sustained pleasure". He goes on further to say that " a play deficit is much like a sleep deficit". He believes that our brains work better if given the right amount of play. We are having more behavioral problems in our schools than ever before. Could this be as a result of limiting the play experiences of our children?
One of the important language skills a child learn in the pre-school period is to predict and problem solve. They pose questions such as "What will happen if....?", "Why can't we.......?", What could he/she say.............?" "How can I...............?" Early play experiences such as taking things apart and putting them back together helped put the first man on the moon. They allowed these creative problem solvers to take risks in a safe environment. Play experiences were the common factor to all the key developers of the US Space Program.
Play experiences form the basis of narrative skill development commonly assessed in National Literacy Benchmarks. In play children imitate what they have seen their parents doing... making a cake, washing the dog, changing the bike tyre. They get a sense of we do this first, then .... then .... but if we ............ this might happen and that will make us feel............ This idea of sequencing, cause and effect, and the feelings around the consequences, forms the basis of oral and written narrative skills. It is also a common theme to much of the curriculum. The Maths curriculum involves sequencing and predicting outcomes, which has at its very core, the comprehension of a notion of cause and effect, learnt initially through play.
Playing with children also has significant health benefits for adults. Studies have found that people who continue to play games, explore, and learn throughout life, are much less prone to dementia and other neurological conditions, and even heart disease than the rest of the population. One study at the Albert Einstein and Syracuse Universities found that people who continued doing puzzles, reading and engaging in mentally challenging work were 63% less likely to develop Alzheimer's disease.
All play is not the same. Play around screens, televisions, ipads, computers etc. can be sedentary and isolate people from the real-world and human interaction which are an essential element of psychological health. The other thing that screens do not permit is the interaction with the material world to feel the tug of gravity and physically move through space and feel the resistance of solid objects. Some of our children have not developed the necessary core strength to help them to sit for extended periods as they have not had the gross motor experiences of climbing and crawling over and under logs, trees, tunnels and the many other obstacles and challenges nature has to offer. These children are often our wrigglers whom we tell to sit still, but have we really thought about whether they are physically able to?
Language is developed through social interaction. In early childhood this interaction is primarily through play. We all learn much faster when we enjoy what it is we are learning so it is logical that children will learn language much faster when engaging in an activity with the people they love.
The concept of taking turns to speak, or having conversations, is very limited in screen-based entertainment so it is also logical that too much screen time will result in individuals with very limited conversational skills.
To hear some of our Educational Policy makers describe play as being "fluff" or "of no real value" is an indication that these individuals in such a position of power over the development of our future society do not understand how children learn. To commence formal education too early, and to ignore the oral language skills developed through play experiences is to deny our society of a generation of story tellers. It also denies parents precious, fun-filled, play moments brimming with imagination and conversation. These moments quite possibly could provide a literacy outcome much superior to the one we have at present. The key to imaginative stories begins with play.