Play-Based Learning in Family Child Care, Part One: What is Play?

Play as Learning

Play-Based Learning

Author: Melis Emre 

Last month, the New York Times ran an OpEd entitled “Let the Kids Learn through Play,” in which science writer David Kohn critiques the rise of lecture-based curricula in early childhood classrooms. Kohn, drawing on insights from developmental psychology and pedagogy, argues that such didactic methods are in many ways harmful to children’s development, and that instead of trying to force young children to sit through formal instruction, early childhood programs should allow them to explore and learn through play.

What do you envision when you think of play? Some people imagine play to be a purposeless, idle activity, something to pass the time between educational experiences. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth: mature, properly guided play is one of the most meaningful and educational activities that a child can engage in. Through play, children learn important concepts like number and language, as well as social and self-regulatory skills.

In the first post of this multi-part All Our Words series, we’ll try to define (as best as possible) what exactly is meant by “play.” Later posts will explore the role of play in development, how providers can support the play of the children in their care, and how play helps shape All Our Kin’s family child care programs. We hope that this series helps readers understand the role of play in learning and child development.

Recognizing Play

So what exactly is play? As anyone who’s spent a decent amount of time around young children can tell you, play is highly variable, so coming up with a concrete definition of what qualifies as play is quite difficult. Many psychologists and educators believe that play is less about what a child is doing and more about how he or she is doing it. In other words, whether an activity can be called “play” or not depends on the child’s intention or mood. Play is not bound by the limitations of the “real world”; it is physically, cognitively, and socially spontaneous. And – of course – it’s fun!

Immature and Mature Play

Although play can take many different forms, not all play is created equal. Play can be immature (superficial) or mature (complex). The table below provides an example of how the same type of play (in this case, imaginary play) can differ drastically in terms of level of maturity.

Mature Imaginary Play Immature Imaginary Play
Children play roles that have specific characteristics or rules for action. Children may play several roles at once, changing their language and actions to indicate a new role. Play is coordinated and has a theme. Play does not have roles or may have a primitive role based on one action or on a literal prop. There is no overall theme and little negotiation/coordination between players.
Children engage in extended discussions about their roles, actions, and the use of props prior to starting their play as well as when the play scenario is about to be changed. Children cannot describe what they will play in advance of beginning the action. There is little planning or forethought involved in the play. Children talk through disputes over roles and props.
Children become immersed in play and can continue the next day or for several days to explore and expand a pretend scenario. Children are unable to sustain play for longer than 5‐10 minutes before moving on to another activity.

2013-05-01 10.01.31Imaginative, “make-believe” play is a particularly important type of play. It allows children to invent original scenarios and ideas, use materials in a symbolic way, and work together in pursuit of a larger goal. You can learn a lot about how the children in your program are developing by observing them during make-believe play and making note of how mature their play is—are they cooperating and playing together, or playing in isolation? Are disputes being resolved without your intervention? Are new ideas being incorporated as children play or are the same things being done over and over again? These are all things to look out for as you oversee the play of the children in your program.

Supporting Play in Your Program

The good news is that children’s play tends to evolve naturally even without adult interference or guidance. However, there are times when it can be useful to step in and provide support for a given play-based activity by introducing new ideas or guiding a child who is struggling with a particular skill or concept.

Some ways you can support or scaffold the play of young children include:

  • Making sure that children have sufficient time and space for play
    • Create specific play areas, such as a block area or a dramatic play area
    • Schedule blocks of time for play regularly.
  • Choosing age-appropriate props and toys
    • Make sure to tailor not just materials but concepts to the different age-levels in your program
  • Helping children plan their play
    • One way to help children plan their play is called “Plan-Do-Review”: at the beginning of each day, you help the children plan out the activities they want to try during their free time. If, as the day goes on, children get off-track, you can remind them of their plan. Before everyone leaves, you can sit down (either as a group or individually) and review what each child did.

Now that we’ve defined play a bit more clearly, we’re ready to turn our attention to how it impacts cognitive development—come back soon to read all about it!

Melis is a recent graduate of Yale (’13) who currently works at the Yale Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering. Her interest in early childhood care and education began during her senior year when she spent a semester at Calvin Hill Daycare and Kitty-Lustman Findling Kindergarten. She wrote her thesis on the role of play in the development of young children, and continues to contribute to the field through her involvement with All Our Kin’s Read, Count, Grow initiative.

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