Play and learning

Christian Rittelmeyer

Play is not useless – that is demonstrated by the comprehensive research on children at play. It points to the many different educational effects of this important childhood activity which can be found in all cultures. That is also shown by the careful observation of what children do and learn in play. In social role-play they practice looking at something from the perspective of another person and planning their own activities in relation to that. In construction games they exercise their fine motor skills; they learn to break down actions into their components in a planned way in order to achieve a particular goal; in doing so, they obtain their first insights into the basic functions of the technical world. In competitive games they train and vary their awareness of the rules; taking on meaningful roles demands empathy with the perspective underlying the actions of others as well as the mental anticipation of their reaction and, finally, adjusting one’s own actions to the assumed expectations of other people. None of that of course happens without conflict – for example when individual players experience rejection because the “don’t join in properly”, because they appear unsuitable for particular roles (pirate, dentist) or because they cannot physically keep up in motor activities.

“No, I’m the horse!”

The discussions about rules which are often “interposed” in role play or competitive games – “I suppose I’m the horse now…”, “But I want to play the dog…” – train the awareness of rules as well as communicative skills. We can observe the way that fairness, justice and the ability to negotiate axioms or goals of action are learned, as well as in many cases an increasingly productive way of handling conflict. Balancing reciprocal interests is just as much a part of the repertoire of activity in these games as the experience that rules have to be complied with and that honesty or consistency are required if we want to become or remain a member of the reference group.

In fictional games children noticeably practice their imagination, in functional games their sensory and motor skills, but also elementary self-object relationships – “the thing is not doing what I want it to do, it’s something else” – or basic “I” experiences: the ball hitting the target is something I have done. Basic sensory and material experiences are also gathered here, for example when a two-year-old child takes all the screwdrivers out of a tool box and puts them next to one another in order of size, which additionally clearly shows the beginning of concepts of systemisation and ordering practised by means of objects.

In their games requiring discipline, children experiment with experiences of self control – not laughing when someone else makes a funny face, running half naked through a field of stinging nettles with an impassive face pretending to be an Indian. That in turn is the preliminary physical practice for any morality as well as any skills in disciplined theoretical thinking.

An increase in the schoolification of the child’s day

If we take these elementary educational processes in child’s play into account, it does not seem reasonable that some education politicians are currently calling for less play in favour of the preschool acquisition of so-called cognitive skills. Such ideas in education policy contradict the meanwhile large volume of research on children’s play. The opinion illustrated in the example above, that play makes no contribution to the education of the child, also has a long tradition in European history. It was not until the nineteenth and, even more so, the twentieth century that the opposing position became popular according to which learning and educational experiences are gathered in free play in particular. Currently there are, however, renewed objections to play in preschool and primary school institutions.

These are not always based on doubts about the educational value of play but frequently on the conviction that didactically organised early intervention leads to better learning outcomes than play. Thus play activity in US kindergartens, for example, has decreased in recent years by about 25 percent in favour of school-like activities. A research report by Kenneth R. Ginsburg (2006), in the context of which this development was presented, cites some of the causes. Thus for example the pressure on preschool facilities to focus on teaching the so-called PISA basic skills of mathematics, science and reading, as otherwise public funding for the facilities would be reduced, represents a significant reason to reduce play. But also the demands of parents unsettled by the PISA findings, that their children should be particularly supported in these basic competencies, motivates these institutions to schoolify their provision further. Finally, the often over-full schedules of many children rarely leave space any longer for simple play activities.

Thus a position paper from 2002 of the As­sociation for Childhood Education International says, for example: “Children are growing up in a rapidly changing world characterised by dramatic shifts in what all children are expected to know and be able to do. Higher and tougher standards of learning for all populations of students are focusing on a narrow view of learning. Consequently, students have less time and opportunity to play than did children of previous generations. Few would disagree that the primary goal of education is student learning and that all educators, families, and policymakers bear the responsibility of making learning accessible to all children. Decades of research has documented that play has a crucial role in the optimal growth, learning, and development of children from infancy through adolescence. Yet, this need is being challenged, and so children's right to play must be defended by all adults, especially educators and parents.” The reference to the right of children to play relates to the Convention on the Rights of the Child  which was adopted by the United Nations in 1989: according to the Convention each child has a right to free education, play and relaxation.

Children who play become more creative and resilient

In the position paper quoted above, Joan Isenberg and Nancy Quisenberry give a comprehensive insight into the research situation regarding the subject of “the importance of play for the development of the growing child”. We can also refer in this context to the report presented by Kenneth R. Ginsburg in 2007 at the request of the American Academy of Pediatrics, already mentioned above. A comprehensive overview of the research is also presented by Dorothy Singer, Roberta Golinkoff and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek in their anthology from 2009 called indicatively Play = Learning.

Growing children who were given sufficient time for play in the family, at preschool and in primary school subsequently display better school performance, creativity, resilience, self-confidence and social skills – to name but a few effects here. Of course these are statistical trends which do not relate to every child.

Crucial for the effects referred to above are both the quality of the play arrangements (such as trees to climb, water courses for building dams, props for dressing up) and the type of materials (for example toys that promote the use of the imagination instead of channelling or obstructing it). But the sum total of the results shows clearly that the widespread view that play is a diversion (if a fun one) ignores the facts and that the Chinese teacher quoted at the beginning is subject to a considerable misapprehension.

These remarks are not intended in any way to make a case for an overly playful kindergarten world. Anyone who deals with children attentively is aware of their thirst for new things and knowledge – during a visit to a museum for example, when taking a walk in the woods, visiting a factory or watching the fire brigade exercising. Such experiences, too, must be enabled in preschool and primary school or in extra-curricular educational activities for all children. But the observation of playing children described at the beginning as well as the research mentioned above draws our attention to the fact that children collect elementary educational experiences through the play they organise themselves. We should therefore ensure that they are not deprived of that opportunity.

About the author: Christian Rittelmeyer was professor of education in the education department at Göttingen University until 2003.