We tend to associate learning through play with pre-school children. But play, or any self-directed activities, can have a valuable impact on their education whatever age they are. It’s an approach that home educating parents use to their advantage.
Very young children love to explore their world, love to get their hands on anything, open cupboards and drawers, press buttons and play with any piece of technology we have in our hands. They don’t do this to be annoying which is sometimes how it feels – they do it to learn. They are keen to learn about how things work, how things feel, what things do, what they can do with them.
Providing small children with play opportunities using things around them like bowls of water and containers, tools, materials like sand, mud, stones, play dough etc., is known as heuristic play. This is an approach that allows them to learn things for themselves through self discovery, and is a style of learning normally associated with very young children.
But as children grow this kind of self directed exploration and discovery can be equally useful as a learning approach. After all, research is the ultimate form of discovery; any of us can ‘play’ for hours once we get on the web!
Although some parents may think that the only way children progress educationally is through structured academic practise, this isn’t strictly true. Children need a variety of activities and experiences to enhance their educational progress, including self-directed projects. For basically children learn all the time whatever they are doing, whether it’s directed or academic or not.
For example, in order to write children need the physical skills associated with it. They need to be able to manipulate the tools, to be able to control them, to coordinate their hand and eye and to develop the muscles needed. But these skills can be developed through other activities besides writing which many children resist, activities like drawing or creating models, play with any toys or objects that require manipulation (Lego or similar is an example). Activities with other tools besides pencils will develop these skills.
Another example; their language develops enormously by using it in a variety of ways, by talking in a play situation, story-telling, by using technology, texting, gaming or anything that brings them into contact with words. Children have to experience language in order to understand it – experience its real use not just its academic use. So using language in any form – play or otherwise – at whatever age, is valuable.
This is also true of their experience with maths, science – all subjects really. Their play, particularly investigative play – even that which goes ‘wrong’, gives them insight they would not have in a formal situation. An experiment that goes wrong is as valuable as one that succeeds if you analyse why. Having the opportunity to play and experiment, explore and invent, create and construct, develops skills like problem solving, dexterity, lateral thinking, confidence, resourcefulness and staying power.
Physical play, including sports, is equally important for it develops their mental capacity as well as their strength and fitness.
All young people need large amounts of time where they direct their own activities – or play as it would be called by adults wanting them to ‘learn’. But this distinction is unimportant – it’s all learning. It is also valuable as an opportunity to take charge, be independent, think for themselves and develop self-motivation and direction.
And play – or self-directed activity – is not just for children; apparently even Einstein liked to make mud pies for he said it enabled him to think.
The more opportunities we give our children to think for themselves through infant or grown up play the more their skills and intelligence develop and the more this will enhance their education.