Everyone can recall those pleasant moments when they were young and there was nothing more important to do than spend countless hours playing. Many of us remember our childhood imaginary friends, and all the adventures we spent outside or even inside the house. Play is a meaningful experience and it is very satisfying for children.
Early childhood educators have recognized the influence of play over children’s development. However, despite the importance of play, it is constantly undervalued and many children are spending less time in peer group settings for free play. Many parents now prefer placing their children in places that offer structured and educational recreational activities, leaving little time for children to participate in self-initiated free play.This is a disservice to the children as developmental literature has shown that play stimulates physical, emotional, social and cognitive development. Children simply need time to play.
What exactly is the educational value of play? The learning process in play is deeply integrated and difficult to measure without a trained eye. Much of the learning happens without direct intervention by the teacher, which perhaps leads some parents to believe that playing doesn’t have any educational value. However, play develops the foundation of social, physical and emotional skills needed to succeed in school and in life. Using building blocks or playing in the sand will give young learners the foundation needed for mathematical and cognitive thinking. Playing with their peers develops social and emotional skills. Play also bolsters creativity and flexibility in thinking. Pretend play develops communication, conversational skills and social problem solving.
The relationship between play and learning is an interesting and complex web of interactivity. Play and learning are inseparable preschool activities. Although learning in play is powerful, it is less obvious than structured learning, and is often of secondary importance to the actual play. To the child, learning is only a consequence of the play and not its main purpose.
An educator needs to help balance learning for individual children and create an environment where children can learn through play. One of the most important roles for a teacher is to facilitate play, to create and maintain an environment that is conducive to play, and allow children to set the flow and direction of the play.
Teachers can set long, uninterrupted periods of about 40 to 60 minutes for spontaneous play. Teachers should provide a variety of materials that stimulates different kinds of play such as blocks, sand, mud, clay and paint. Teachers should also ensure that all children have access to play and let children play for their own purposes.