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The Value of Play

Mike Wolfe, the Head of Primary at The British International School Abu Dhabi, discusses the importance and benefits of unstructured play for students from Foundation Stage through to Secondary.

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Observing children interact and play during the day is truly fascinating, you really have no idea in which direction they will take their activity or game because there are no plans or rules that they need to adhere to. This is demonstrated every day at school from our 3-year-olds through to IB students.

When children are left alone to play, they decide what to do and how to do it. That’s what we call teamwork. When we mix the ages of the children playing together something fascinating happens and the dynamics change. The younger children look up to the older children and sometimes try to mimic their actions as they have a role model. This is the foundation of maturity and behaving differently. Likewise, the older children are released from the perceived constraints of maturity and remember what it’s like to have fun without necessarily having a competitive outcome other than enjoyment. Older children when working with younger children adapt the rules and run slower or do not kick a ball as hard as they can to make sure that the younger children have a good time. This is called empathy. Through discussing what to do and how to include everyone they learn how to compromise and what democracy is.

Best of all, without adults intervening, the children have to do all the problem solving for themselves, from deciding what game to play to making sure the teams are roughly equal. Then, when there's an argument, they have to resolve it themselves. That's a tough skill to learn, but the drive to continue playing motivates them to work things out. To get back to having fun, they first have to come up with a solution, so they do. This teaches them that they can disagree, find solutions, and move on.

Unstructured, unsupervised time for play is one of the most important things we have to give back to children if we want them to be strong, happy and resilient. It's only when the grown-ups aren't around that the children get to take over. Play is training for adulthood.

Mike Wolfe, Head of Primary