Play: The Four Letter Word in Primary School

As a researcher, facilitator and advocate of teaching and learning through play in the primary school sector, I am continually asked “it all sounds great, and we know the benefits – but what do we call it….because it can’t just be called play”.

Decades of research provides evidence that play is the most valuable and successful way in which children engage in learning.  Through play, children can build all the necessary skills and knowledge required of them in readiness for adulthood.  Social-learning theory, constructivism, cognitive development theories, socio-emotional theories and physical development theories all uphold the power play has in the holistic development of children.

More recently, neuroscience has also identified the important link between learning through play, physical movement and the successful development of key executive functioning skills now viewed as paramount for the adult workforce.

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Yet in the face of the mountain of research, primary school educators still avoid at all cost the use of the word play to describe the teaching and learning pedagogy within their school setting.  In primary-school based literature itself, play is not a useful search term to input.  It simply brings up very little with regards to the play – by researched definition- that equates to powerful learning opportunities for children.

Instead, educators look for ways to camouflage play pedagogy in a myriad of other packaged-type terms.  ‘Enriched curriculum’, ‘discovery’, ‘developmental’, ‘powerful learning activities’, ‘active learning’, ‘student ownership’ – all terms used by schools to justify the use of play pedagogy in their learning environment.

The need to package and market play suggests that educators are yet to truly understand and value the importance and validity of play as a powerful tool to support children’s learning.  It demonstrates an almost embarrassment at something that seems so trivial as being so vital within the school environment.  It also indicates a wariness of image and appearance – that play does not look like ‘real learning’, hence the need to make it sound as important as it is with a more academic title.  Parents, who vote with their feet, may not accept a school’s competency to provide maximal learning opportunities for their children because by all appearances children are ‘just playing’.

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A further paradox in calling play by its name exists in the mere fact that the light-heartedness of play is key to its very success.  In needing to call play something else – a more formalised label for example – educators contradict the very essence of what makes play so effective.

Children do not see play as difficult.  Play may be a challenge, but often it is the challenge itself that makes play even more enticing.  At no time, however, should true play be rigorous and laborious (as often much of formal schooling tends to be).  The fact that play is light-hearted and fun contributes to its profundity.  By renaming play we extinguish this very characteristic, and in turn reduce its effectiveness.

If we continue to be embarrassed by a term such as play it will never be used as a valid form of teaching and learning.  In avoiding the use of the word play it can only be assumed that educators are embarrassed that something that appears so trivial can in fact have such an impact on students’ learning.

Would this be the case if the terms were ‘reading’ and ‘writing’.  Why are these terms so readily accepted, and play is not?  Reading is not marketed as an ‘Accessing Visual Information for Purpose (AVIP)’ program.  Writing is not validated as an ‘Effective Communication Skill Development (ECSD)’ program.  Yet both reading and writing have a depth of skill and knowledge within their ‘label’ that is not fully understood by those untrained in the teaching of these areas.

Play is the same.  Play, as a teaching and learning tool, cannot be easily defined or explained in a single term.  The teaching skills and learning outcomes associated with authentic play are multi-layered, as is with the teaching skills and learning outcomes associated with reading and writing.  And yet, the terms themselves are widely accepted by all within the greater school community.  Play as a term still struggles to join this party.

How does play become accepted as a valid and powerful teaching and learning tool? By starting with being called what it is.  Play.  Educators need to stop trying to camouflage the pedagogy by calling it something other than what it is.  It should not be embarrassing to say that the way in which children learn best and in a meaningful way is through play.

Teachers know what works for children.  Teachers understand what is developmentally appropriate for their students.  Parents and the wider school community need to be supported to understand this also.  By using the word play as part of an evidence-based, carefully considered and professionally implemented pedagogy, teachers can ensure play gets the recognition it deserves and is accepted as the valid and powerful learning tool it is designed to be.

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