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Jessica Adams

Jessica Adams

Let them Play? Play v Learning

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Do you value the importance of play? Or are you unsure if play is ‘real’ learning? However you look at it, there is often a tension between play and learning. Many people can be confused about whether or not play is a valuable way to learn. If you’re reading this, it’s likely that you’re interested in finding ways to encourage kids to play and learn at the same time. Indeed, this was a key motivation for the Primo Toys team when we developed Cubetto – a wooden robot who teaches children coding while they play.

Western philosophy has tended to view play as either pre-rational (not logical) or rational (logical), and has even regarded it as subversive. Eastern philosophies, however, have a more integrated view of play. In Hindu cosmology, play does not oppose the social order. It is part of it.

As we can see, the nature of play and the value it is given in the role of learning is complex and varies with cultural context. Nevertheless, an increase in screen-based activities and an emphasis on an ‘earlier the better’ approach to teaching numeracy and literacy in schools worldwide, alongside other social and environmental factors, has led to widespread concerns about the demise of play. This has brought playtime – in and out of the classroom – firmly into the limelight among educators and policy makers.

Here, we’ll look at the importance of play in human development, different types of play and the benefits of learning through play for children. Finally, we’ll discover how parents and educators can support kids in creative play.

(If you have time, we recommend FutureLearn’s free online course ‘Exploring Play’ with the University of Sheffield).

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1. Why Play?

Many of us may consider play as optional. Yet, as Dr Doris Bergen, Distinguished Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Miami, highlights, play is crucial to our existence on this planet. The inherently playful nature of human beings has enabled us to adapt, survive and thrive in challenging, ever-changing and often unpredictable environments for thousands of years.

Just as other mammals play at learning the skills they will need for survival – hunting, gathering, fighting, say – so do humans. Since most humans no longer live in their natural habitat, however, the skills we need may appear more abstract than those required by animals. For instance, a young chimpanzee might play at using sticks as tools to extract ants from a log, so later they are able to fend for themselves. Yet, as a child matures they typically have to learn skills that will prepare them for paid employment in order to meet their financial and, by turn, most of their survival needs. Social skills, alongside numeracy and literacy are fundamental, sure. Yet creativity, fearlessness and problem-solving are also essential.

In the past we may have followed our parents into a profession. But that is much less likely these days, as is the traditional career structure that assured a job for life. The digital age promises no such security, though it does provide new opportunities all the time. Individuals and businesses continually have to innovate, change and adapt to new technologies alongside environmental factors such as climate change.

Former architect Pat Flynn knows well that change is the only true constant in life. After losing his job as an architect, he has since become a leading expert on online entrepreneurship. Also a father, he understands the importance of a play – he takes a playful approach to his parenting, and encourages his son, Keoni, to learn through play.

For father and son, making and flying paper aeroplanes together has helped nurture not just his son’s ‘engineer’s mindset’ but also his own model for testing business ideas. In Will it Fly? How to test your next business idea so you don’t waste your money and your time, Flynn describes how Keoni built 100 or more paper aeroplanes between the ages of three and six. ‘I’m proud to see him try new designs and not worry about failure anymore. His planes don’t always fly as expected, but he has learned that failing is a part of the process of building cool stuff and I’ve shifted his thinking to “I can’t” to “I haven’t figured it out yet.’”

2. What is Play?

According to Dr David Whitebread, developmental cognitive psychologist and early years specialist at the University of Cambridge, ‘the one vital ingredient in supporting healthy intellectual, emotional and social development in young children is the provision of opportunities and the support for play.’ Whitebread describes five main types of play, many of which overlap:

a) Physical play

From an evolutionary perspective, this was the earliest type of play to evolve in humans, and can be observed among most, possibly all, mammals. Physical play includes everything from active play, such as jumping, climbing and ball games, to play that develops fine motor skills, such as sewing, colouring and construction toys. Physical play helps kids to stay active and healthy.

b) Play with objects

Babies explore objects through motor-sensory play – in other words, everything goes in the mouth! Arranging, sorting and classifying objects develops around 18 to 24 months, and by the age of four get busy creating and making with objects – this is the age of construction, when building blocks and other tactile wooden children’s toys grasp young imaginations. ‘When playing with objects,’ says Whitebread,‘children set themselves goals and challenges, monitor their progress towards them, and develop an increasing repertoire of cognitive and physical skills and strategies.’

c) Symbolic play

Symbolic play is happening when kids explore language, numbers, visual media such as painting and drawing, and music. Kids are master storytellers, poets, mathematicians, artists and musicians. They play with different and often very original arrangements of ideas, words, sounds, numbers, marks, brush strokes, pieces of paper, glitter, glue, pots, pans, wooden spoons, instruments and more, in a free and uninhibited way that is inspiring. Children demonstrate a fearlessness and sense of adventure in symbolic play that is fuelled by imagination and guided by intuition. This is creativity at work, genius at play.

(Find out more about what’s so brilliant about this way of learning through play in our blog on Montessori education.)

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d) Pretence or socio-dramatic play

Also known as role play, pretence or socio-dramatic play is when children make sense of the world through acting out particular roles – from those of their parents to professions such as doctors and firefighters, and beyond into the animal kingdom and fantasy. This kind of play is often called ‘free-play’. Yet, as Whitebread says, ‘it makes some of the greatest demands on children’s self-restraint, or self-regulation. During socio-dramatic play, in particular, children are obliged to follow the social rules governing the character they are portraying.’ Like games with rules – see below – role play helps children to develop empathy (understanding other people’s points of view) as well as resilience.

e) Games with rules

Contrary perhaps to the idea that play is subversive, kids like to know the rules. They enjoy games with rules – from hide-and-seek and chase to board, card and electronic games, through to organised sports. If children don’t know the rules of a game, they often make up their own, or invent new games with new rules. Even better if the games are open-ended and involve problem solving.

At Primo Toys, we certainly found open-endedness and problem solving were key to keeping kids engaged in play as we developed Cubetto. In fact, this is one of the reasons we moved away from our original design of a car-shaped robot, to a box with a face that is gender neutral and leaves more to the imagination.

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3. Benefits of Play

In the global arena, play is considered so important that it is recognised as a universal right. Article 31 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNRC) states: ‘Children have the right to relax and play, and to join in a wide range of cultural, artistic and other recreational activities.’ Every country in the UN bar two has agreed to uphold this convention.

During the industrial revolution, children’s lives began to be increasingly separate from adult working lives, so say Liz Brooker and Martin Woodhead of the Child and Youth Studies Group at The Open University, UK. As the nurseries of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century began to take shape, pioneering educators such as Maria Montessori advocated a hands-on approach to learning that was both pleasurable and self-directed. The nursery day included many of those activities we now take for granted in early years education such as building with blocks, playing with sand and water, role play, listening to stories, songs and movement.

Different children play in different ways – some may be naturally more engaged by games with rules and social interaction, while others can happily spend hours in their own world of construction or small-world fantasy role play. Nevertheless, kids generally all see play as fun, time with their friends, an opportunity to use their imaginations, pretend, and choose what they want to do, with whom and for how long.

Kids like to play, it is natural for them to play. It feels good to play. Children feel better about themselves and create better connections with the world and others around them when they play. There is no distinction for them between play and learning, just as Montessori saw no distinction between play and work for children – actually, Montessori educators hold that play is the work of children.

But what exactly are kids learning when they play?

Here are just a handful of the intrinsic rewards of play.

  • Self-confidence

Confidence in their own ability and the value of their contribution.

  • Self-regulation

The ability to practice self-restraint where appropriate.

  • Social responsibility

Awareness of the impact of their actions on others.

  • Gross and fine motor skills

They become able to use their bodies to effectively undertake a task, for example using scissors to cut paper (fine) or lifting bigger objects, such as building blocks, from one place to another (gross).

  • Physical development and fitness

Building strength and resilience to engage in physical activity for extended periods of time.

  • Verbal and non-verbal social skills

Expressing themselves through speech and body language.

  • Experience of building relationships with a diverse range of people

They are able to exercise empathy and understand the needs of others while having the confidence to express their individual needs and desires.

  • Concentration

Able to stay focused on one task for an age-appropriate length of time.

  • Memory for objects

Can remember what things look like and recognise them as something they’ve seen before.

  • Memory for narratives

Can remember stories.

  • Storytelling skills

Can make up their own stories, with characters and dramatic structure.

  • Language, literacy and maths

Speech, reading, writing and numeracy.

  • Intellectual enquiry

Able to think of and ask questions to find out more about what things are and how they work.

  • Foundations for scientific and academic exploration and understanding

Confidence in the value of their ideas, questions, theories and contribution as children enter more formal educational settings.

These benefits are enhanced when kids have a wide range of learning toys, such as Montessori play materials, readily available to them.

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The emotional and psychological environment is also critical. Where there is no fear of failure. When mistakes are celebrated as part of the learning process. When children are left to their own devices to explore playthings and come up with their own solutions to problems. When kids don’t feel inhibited to express themselves or shout out their successes. When they can work together, and have fun while they’re doing it. This is when the best learning happens. Play allows for free association, open-ended possibilities, and problem solving, all of which is the stuff of healthy, confident creativity.

This is the kind of environment that leads to what bestselling author Elizabeth Gilbert describes as ‘Big Magic’. In her book of the same title, Gilbert says the sole purpose of creativity is simply to create. That for an individual’s innate creativity and genius to flourish, we must do away with the dualism that judges creative output as either a failure or a success. ‘Such thinking assumes that you must be constantly victorious – not only against your peers, but also against an earlier version of your own poor self. Most dangerously of all, such thinking assumes that if you cannot win, then you must not continue to play.’

Simply put, if children – and the adults they become – do not continue to play, then the science, technology, engineering and creative industries will not be able to rely on the future generations they need to adapt, survive, thrive and innovate. Play underpins entrepreneurship too. ‘There is nothing that human beings do, know, think, hope and fear that has not been attempted, experienced, practised or at least anticipated in children’s play,’ concludes Heidi Britz-Crecelius in ‘Children At Play’.

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4. How to Support Children in Learning Through Play

Play is important – kids learn about themselves and others, and about the world around them as they play. Play also builds essential foundations for confident, creative, fearless learning in formal and academic educational settings. So, how then, can we support children in learning through play?

Well, this one’s not rocket science. Yet, it can be hard for many parents and educators to put into practice. If you want children to learn through play, the first thing you have to do is step back and let them play. Easier said than done? Precisely because it is so easy, and because no intervention is needed from adults, many parents and educators can find it difficult to let go and let play flow.

Really, you don’t have to be seen to be doing anything. You could even sit back and work quietly on something you love doing. In fact, it’s probably best if you make yourself as boring as possible so that children don’t get into the habit of defaulting to adults to provide them with an activity. This way they start to gain independence and self-reliance in play.

Oh, and one more thing: butt out! Resist the temptation to direct or join in their play unless they invite you – from age three and upwards kids should be left to their own imaginations as much as possible. If adults interject and attempt to orchestrate play, this pulls children out of their ‘work’. You know how annoying and disruptive it is to be constantly distracted when you’re concentrating on something important, right?

This is not to say parents and educators don’t have a role. Of course they do. We talked about the importance of a learning environment in which children feel safe to explore, to make mistakes and work things out for themselves. Creating a safe – as in judgement-free – space to play is the greatest gift we can give to children. This and providing them with all the raw materials they need to play, indoors and out. Think tactile, think sensory, think variety and include resources that encourage children to engage in the five different types of play highlighted above.

Toys certainly don’t need to be sophisticated. In Silicon Valley, California, USA, many of the children of employees of Google, Apple, Yahoo and Hewlett-Packard attend the Steiner Waldof School in Los Altos. ‘The school’s chief teaching tools are anything but high-tech: pens and paper, knitting needles and, occasionally, mud,’ reports Matt Richtel in the New York Times.

What’s more, you don’t have to bring all the toys out at once – in fact, this would be too overwhelming for kids. Just one or two carefully selected toys. It might be wooden games or STEM toys for toddlers, followed perhaps by dressing up clothes for role play or paint, glue, paper and brushes for a messy art session.

Last but not least, encourage children to tidy up after themselves before getting more toys out. Make it into a game. This will help them to develop sorting and categorising skills as they go. Label boxes, drawers and cupboards clearly with words and pictures, making it as easy for them as possible to put things away.

The rest, as they say, is child’s play!


Writer, yoga teacher and mother of two, Jessica Adams has over nine years’ experience of making a home and raising boys, alongside a lifelong love of learning, play and creativity. She is passionate about nurturing children in an environment that supports their growth as individuals who are not afraid to take risks or make mistakes, and who embrace informal and formal education with a sense of fearlessness and adventure. Jessica is a former editor at Time Out Guides, a travel, health and fitness journalist, and author of ‘The Girl’s Guide to Action Sports’.

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