During their first years of life, children learn most about the world around them by listening or watching adults. Practice is the best way they can develop fundamental skills, such as walking or learning how to express their feelings. Most of the time, this happens through play, whether it is with adults, or with other kids.
Letting and, most importantly, encouraging kids to play will help them develop social, emotional and cognitive skills, all of which are fundamental for a healthy life. Moreover, exposing them to lots of activities and encouraging them to pick the ones they like most will tell you a lot about what their interests in the future will be. This will help them develop routines, find out what they are passionate about and grow as a person. Children who take a special interest in drawing, for example, may grow up to become artists, or graphic designers, while those passionate about building blocks may take on to become an architect.
Educators have picked up on the importance of playing in the healthy development of children, tailoring their classes, especially in preschool and primary education, follow the principles of play-based learning.
Play-based Learning Principles
If you are wondering what play-based learning activities are revolving around, try picturing kids finger painting, or playing with Lego.
The play-based learning philosophy revolves around sparking curiosity and making kids voluntarily want to learn about the world around them. Only this way can the younglings find the motivation to learn things, because in the first years of life, their attention span is extremely limited and, if not entertained, they can lose interest very quickly.
Many people mistake play-based learning with gamified work, which although similar, is much less natural and free. When playing, kids make most of the rules themselves and the final purpose is not to learn and exact skill, but rather to discover and apply them as they go. Learning the alphabet through a song, for example, is not play-based learning, even though it may be fun and enjoyable.
The main difference between gamification and play-based learning is precisely the fact that gamified activities have an agenda behind them. You encourage kids to do certain activities in order to learn something, whereas play-based learning is unstructured and does not have an end-goal tied to it.
However, play-based learning kindergarten activities do seem to follow some guidelines, to help differentiate them from other, more academic-focused activities. Those principles are:
·Freedom of choice: even though educators may invite children to play during certain times of the day, the kids are the ones that decide what and how they play.
· Pleasure: playing should be a fun activity that is, for the most part, enjoyable. Even though kids may get frustrated when they can’t seem to master a game, learning how to control their emotions and how to manage disagreements is part of the skills they develop.
· Exploration: play-based learning does not follow a structured scheme, but is guided by the interests and passions of each child.
· Imagination: one of the key advantages of play-based learning is that it nurtures imagination and sparks creativity. Give a kid a set of play blocks and they will figure out a way to build a castle that defies all rules.
· Growth-oriented: the process of playing does not have a fixed goal that needs to be achieved, but focused rather on the process of playing and what kids can discover by themselves.
Free Play or Guided Play?
Continuous discussions regarding the difference between gamified learning and play-based learning are leading towards one single question: which one is better?
On one hand, you have free play, who teaches children to explore their imagination and focuses more on the process of playing, rather than achieving a specific goal.
On the other hand, there is guided play, which is what most preschools focus on, which involves educators guiding children towards a specific goal, but still uses play to achieve it. Guided play has the role to ensure that there is a certain equilibrium met and children manage to develop multiple valuable skills.
Some people believe that guided play defies the purpose of play-based learning, which is supposed to be guided by free choice and nurture creativity, while others think that guided play does have its benefits. The answer is much more complex and depends solely on the personal development and interest of the children.
The perfect solution seems to be a combination of two or more curriculum approaches, with educators using gamification to teach children specific skills and including free play hours to help them discover and choose their own experiences.
Scientifically Proven Benefits
For most parents, playing simply looks like a way for kids to have fun, but the benefits go far beyond that and actually help with both cognitive and social development. Years of studies have shown that play helps with the development of multiple valuable skills:
Cognitive and critical thinking – by definition, critical thinking means being able to analyze information and apply it in certain environments or contexts. Playing with shapes, using illustration books and games that help demonstrate their thinking are some of the best ways to develop critical thinking abilities.
Creativity – kids are, by nature, curious and creative, being able to come with all sorts of solutions to problems that may seem overwhelming at first. Instead of limiting their imagination, play-based learning will help them push their limits and think outside the box.
Nurtures confidence – in order to cooperate, children need to trust adults. If they are taught to use games, which is something they naturally like, to improve their skills, it will help build confidence and clarify the fact that adults what to play with them, not against them.
Communication – role-playing games will help improve communication, enrich their vocabulary and teach children how to openly articulate their opinions in certain situations.
Ok, but will my child be ready for school?
Playing is fun, but will game-play learning be able to prepare preschoolers for their first years of education? The answer is a strong yes. This is an era where children are pressured to achieve astonishing academic results, but adults often fail to understand that, if it is not done in their own way, kids will slowly develop an aversion to traditional learning.
Kindergarten has become almost mandatory, but studies reveal that, despite going through preschool education, children pass certain development milestones at the same rate they did in the past when kindergarten was not that big of a deal.
Preschool education should aim to prepare children for getting into a school setting and teach them how to react in certain social situations, rather than focus on academical skills. This is where emotional learning comes to play. Examples of play-based learning in kindergarten, that focuses on nurturing social engagement can be group activities, such as improvising a theater play, or sports playing, as well as puzzle-solving that aims to teach them that solutions can be found faster when working together.
Play-based learning does not necessarily focus on teaching children how to develop a certain skill, but rather help them discover and achieve those results on their own. Including play-based learning in the children’s process of development not only in school but also at home will help improve cognition, develop social skills and nurture creativity.