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Playing to Learn. Learning to Play.

17 November 2014

Learning begins at birth and a child’s early development and later health and learning is shaped by their day-to-day experiences within their family and community. Children learn by playing in places where they feel safe, respected, and loved. Children’s play is children’s work.

For many children their first experience of schooling is at the age of 4 or 5 while others may attend day-care from 6 months of age. If you spend any time observing children at play you will notice that their focus and concentration is very deep, they like to talk about what they are doing and they will often repeat activities or tasks over and over again. It is the role of the adult to ensure that the children in their care are able to explore, develop, practise and repeat new skills in order to make progress.

Whilst visiting a Reception class recently, with children aged 4-5 years, I was invited into their imaginative play. Their play was based on a pirate theme and the children were outdoors climbing aboard their pirate ship climbing frame in a quest to find treasure! The children were discussing the possible location of the treasure and I gently suggested that we might need a map. The children thought this was a good idea and we disembarked the ship to go into the classroom to locate the necessary materials. We found paper, markers, pencils and other resources and we were engrossed in map making for the next ten minutes or so.

This led the children to realise that our ship needed to have a name and the children worked collaboratively, using their early phonic skills, to write the name of our vessel on huge pieces of paper. These were then attached to the ship with all of our ‘pirate names’ listed on there too.

One intuitive young man, aged just 4 years old, then decided that if we were going to hunt for treasure then we must make that treasure first. This set the children off on their next task, making golden coins. They used their mathematical knowledge of shape and number to create coins of differing amounts. It was at this point that I, as their pirate comrade and teacher, challenged their understanding of number by encouraging the children to make coins with higher values and was surprised and excited that some of the children could write numbers, accurately into the hundreds, and one student could even write numbers in the thousands (not in any country’s maths curriculum for a child of that age).

During this extremely valuable play the children practised and developed their skills, extended their learning of phonics, shape and number, concentrated on purposeful and self chosen tasks and I was able to differentiate questions to challenge each individual. It was clear to see the value of this play opportunity to the children and their learning was measureable in so many ways.

These learning experiences have the greatest impact when they are self-chosen and linked to the child’s interests. A wide variety of activities, opportunities, resources, time and space will encourage and enable learning to happen at the highest level. Children need to get into a state of ‘flow’ where they become so attuned to what they are doing that they lose a sense of self and time; this is when real learning takes place. This is illustrated in the ‘pirate play’.

This kind of play and learning can only really occur when the environment has been carefully planned, otherwise there is a risk of the children experiencing a ‘free for all’. Good Early Years settings make use of large, bright open-plan spaces; creating a fluid transition between inside and the outdoors. Furniture, lighting and choice of resources help to demarcate different areas and stimulate thinking, resulting in challenge and variety for all learners.

In a good quality setting, children learn by exploring the world through play with the active presence of teachers. These highly trained, qualified and experienced teachers must guide the children’s learning through play activities that suit the child’s age and level of development. A skilled Early Years teacher will not try to dictate or control the activities a child chooses to participate in, they will know what each child’s next step is and use whatever the child is interested in to teach them what they need to know next. This personalised and individual approach ensures all students maximise their potential.

Whilst all of this learning is happening through play children are also busy developing their understanding of the social and emotional behaviours expected when groups of people come together. They are learning how to share resources, wait for their turn, tidy up after themselves, and consider their own thoughts and feelings and those of others. This is why ‘learning to play’ is just as important as ‘playing to learn’.

(The British International School Shanghai, Pudong campus runs a FREE Play Group for children aged 0 months to 3 years, each Monday and Thursday morning from 9:30am-11:30am. For information contact