How we can help families to facilitate learning through play while learning from home
During the pandemic, many parents have been feeling stressed by the thought of having to continue their child’s early learning while in lockdown. Some are trying to juggle work commitments while homeschooling children of multiple age groups, while others are becoming focused on academic outcomes for young children who could learn so much more through play.
Early education and care services around Australia have enthusiastically embraced remote learning as a way to engage with children and families who are staying at home and within that context, it’s more important than ever to shine a spotlight on the value of play-based learning.
In this week’s Amplify we share a reminder of the importance of play in the early years, and how early educators can help families to facilitate learning through play remotely.
In the early years, a child’s main way of learning is through play. It’s the natural way that children’s brains develop. Play is considered so important to a child’s development that children’s rights to rest, leisure, recreation and play appropriate to their age are recognised under Article 31 in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989).
What are the benefits of play?
According to PlayEngland, play can:
- Increase self-awareness, self-esteem, and self-respect
- Improve and maintain physical and mental health
- Provide the opportunity to mix with other children
- Allow children to increase their confidence by developing new skills
- Promote imagination, independence and creativity
- Offer opportunities for children of all abilities and backgrounds to play together
- Provide opportunities for developing social skills and learning
- Build resilience through risk-taking and challenge, problem-solving, and dealing with new and novel situations
- Provide opportunities to learn about their environment and the wider community
Play can also be a great way for parents to build relationships with their children.
Kerrie Maguire, CELA learning and development specialist and play-based learning expert says:
“Play is a basic yet vital part of childhood. It supports children’s social, emotional, intellectual and physical development.
“During times of crisis, the ability to play becomes more important than ever. it can be incredibly therapeutic for children to explore their feelings, concerns and worries through play – and can help children to find a sense of joy and normality again. It’s also the best way for young children to learn.”
The four ways that children learn through play
Understanding the significance of play in children’s development can help adults to gain an understanding of a child’s personality and how they can be helped to learn at different ages.
There are four basic ways that children learn through play1:
From very early infancy, children begin to copy the sounds and actions made by their parents. Simple games such as peek-a-boo allow parents and babies to bond through play, while babies learn to imitate actions and sounds.
Children find out about their environment through movement. This usually starts with babies exploring the way their fingers, feet and toes move and how the inside of their mouth feels when they move their tongue around. As they become more capable and independent in their movements, they widen their exploratory play to include faraway spaces under and on top of furniture and cupboards and by using objects found around the home. They begin to explore languages by putting words and sounds together.
As children learn to crawl, scribble, roll and push, they test what they are able to do and their ability to adapt to suit their environment or situation. As they grow older and start to play with others, they test their ability to hide, find, rescue and capture.
Playing and building with blocks, cars, dolls, soft toys and houses enable children to create and explore their own little worlds. They bring their own understanding of experiences into imaginative play situations, attempting to make sense of their observations through play.
“It’s important to understand that play is not superfluous, and that learning through play is the most important vehicle through which children learn,” says Kerrie. “It’s the way that children can build lifelong learning dispositions such as persistence, curiosity, flexible thinking, problem-solving and confidence. Play builds the foundations for children’s lifelong learning and needs to be valued for its integral role in a child’s development.”
What is play-based learning?
Play-based learning is central to the Early Years Learning Framework, which describes it as ‘a context for learning through which children organise and make sense of their social worlds, as they actively engage with people, objects and representations’ (EYLF, 2009, p. 46).
Many educators still face challenges explaining to parents and other stakeholders the value of play as a foundation for the early years curriculum and the fact that children actually learn through play.
Early education providers Goodstart provide a clear and concise explanation of play-based learning to ensure that families understand the benefits of what may be seen to be a less structured and formal approach:
Play-based learning is all about the process that children embark on, rather than achieving a specific outcome. It’s an approach that is led by the child and supported by teachers and educators by recognising ‘teachable moments’ during play, or by carefully planning play experiences that open up opportunities for learning.
They further elaborate on the benefits of play-based learning for babies, toddlers and preschoolers in separate articles.
The following example from Goodstart illustrates how educators can facilitate and extend learning through play. It may be of value to share examples from your own experiences with your families:
“Recently my kindergarten children have been investigating floating and sinking, so in our science exploration area, I set up a tub of water and left a variety of materials next to it. I also provided some clipboards and pens for children to use in their play.
Each day the children would explore whether the objects floated or sank to the bottom. Without interrupting their play, I would talk to them using language such as ‘float’ and ‘sink’ so that they were able to describe what they could see.
The children experimented and recorded what they saw on their clipboards – some drew pictures, some put down symbols, while others tried to write words.
Each day they discovered something new, and after a week they wanted to make their own boats which they did by using a variety of materials and drawing on what they’d learned when experimenting.
When they tested their boats they noticed they all had good features, but that they all sank eventually. So they decided to work together using the things that worked best to make another boat.
This one floated all day! The children were so excited and kept coming back to check on it.
During this activity the children were developing a range of skills such as scientific understanding, communicating using symbols and verbal language, using fine motor skills, working independently and collaboratively and also using creativity.”
How to integrate play-based learning in a remote learning environment
Perhaps the best way to begin the journey of remote play-based learning is to ensure that parents and carers understand the value and importance of play as a learning tool, and have the confidence to facilitate and extend play-based learning in the home.
“Parents are recognised as the child’s most influential teacher,” shares CELA learning and development specialist Kerrie. “Parents are vital in facilitating and extending children’s play and a remote program can support families in this important learning.”
Once the confidence and ability are there, educators can start to include observations and documentation.
Sarah Brownley from Sapphire Mobile Children’s Service takes the following approach:
Sarah provides families with resources and experiences that would usually be provided at the service such as play dough, loose parts and resources. Families have been sending photos of their children playing and creating with the resources provided. Sarah is now taking the next step of discussing what’s happening in the photos in discussion with parents and most importantly, their child, and is turning these into learning stories to be shared via their new digital documentation program.
So, in this new world of remote learning, parents become play facilitators and the educator provides questions to extend the children’s play. The educator then analyses the learning occurring in the play and shares this as a learning story with the parent.
Setting the scene
Share with parents that they can help to encourage learning through play by making time and space available with relevant resources at hand.
Many parents may be worried that they do not have the right resources at home – you can reassure them that everyday household items like pegs, cups, chalk, masking tape, pots, pans and string make perfect ‘loose parts’.
The NSW Department of Education give many ideas for play-based learning in the home for babies, toddlers and preschoolers in their downloadable pdf Play based learning from home.
Parents are used to hearing the familiar cry of ‘I’m bored’ or ‘I’m finished, what can I do now’.
One of the wonderful things educators can share with parents is the art of extending play – play is never really finished, it’s just about helping children to see the remaining possibilities in what’s already there.
Children’s play can be extended by providing time and encouraging them to be curious,” says Kerrie. “Parents can facilitate this by asking key questions that support children’s play (see these as a provocation, not as instruction on how to do something) and providing as many variables in the environment to support children’s natural curiosity and exploration.
Finally, you may like to share a reflective question with parents:
What were your top play experiences as children and what did you learn from that?
1Taken from ‘Play frees language’ via Play Australia