While incorporating play into the daily curriculum of toddlers and younger children is typically a priority, when children reach school age, play often comes second to more academic styles of learning. Interestingly, however, children of all ages develop cognitive, social, emotional and motor skills through the use of play. In fact, play enriches critical thinking and provides them with so many opportunities to explore, create and problem solve. In addition, when children begin to play with their peers, they are given the opportunity to practice their social skills, which are consequently developed through real-life situations.
Within the education system, there are so many ‘boxes’ teachers and parents need to tick to ensure they are meeting all the requirements of the curriculum. Unfortunately, this means that play is often left out of day-to-day learning. However, when play is integrated into learning, children begin to develop abstract thinking, verbal reasoning skills, social skills and emotional regulation skills. All of these skills are imperative to cognition and overall well-being.
Simple Go-To Items For Play
As with any time of play, a large variety of hugely expensive materials is unnecessary. However, it is important to have a few staple items that you can use in a variety of ways, such as figurines. You can then mix that up and include other materials, like recycled items (i.e., empty tissue boxes, newspaper, toilet rolls etc.), or natural materials, such as flour, water, sand, leaves, sticks or clay. You may even want to include materials, such as paints.
Examples of Unstructured Play Activities
The first step for a completely unstructured activity is be to have all materials easily accessible to your child or students. That way, there are absolutely no limits to what they can use! When children have to start asking for adult help to obtain materials, it sets limits to the play.
A teacher may start off by saying, "We are going to have some free play time. Everything that is included on the back wall is for you to use. You can use any of these materials and toys. You can make whatever you want. There are no rules about what you can make."
In this situation, materials are not limitless, so children are going to have to share and compromise, which in itself already assists with their social learning. After the alloted time has ended, the teacher may go around and ask each child what they have created. The teacher may even ask each child to show the class. Here, children would be practicing their verbal communication skills, public speaking skills and would also achieve a sense of gratification from the praise they receive about their play, thus helping with self-efficacy and self-esteem. In this example, with absolutely no session plan, a teacher or parent would have managed to work on a large number of skills, which have helped their child or student’s social learning, emotional learning and language development.
Now let’s focus on an example of how play can be integrated into a science topic that is common for young children: the ecosystem. After a lesson on ecosystems in general, you may give your child or students some time and materials to create their very own ecosystem. You may even provide a variety of animal figurines. Again, you do not want to give too much structure to the activity, so you may place all the animals in one bucket so the children can choose which animals they want to incorporate into their ecosystem.
In this activity, the children again have to navigate social concerns like sharing and compromising. If this is a group activity, they likely have to work on taking turns. They are, however, given free reign as to what they want to include in their ecosystem and how they want to design it. There are no rules. Again, children can present their work to the class. Here, play has been integrated into the learning curriculum.
This final example of integrating play into learning is simple: allow time for the children to play. Often, down time in a classroom results in time on a device or reading time. However, play is a crucial element of education. Successful learning environments are often those where children are regularly left to their own accord to engage in periods of undirected, unrestricted, free play with their peers.
Whether it be at home or within the classroom, the importance of play should never be overlooked or undermined. Play is important in so many ways, and when play is integrated into learning, the possibilities are endless!
Words by: Emily Habelrih, Clinical Psychologist @theplayfulpsychologist