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The Importance of Play in the Early Years

The Importance of Play in the Early Years

Thursday, 19 February 2015  | Wendy - Early Years Coordinator
We’ve all often heard that play is important in early childhood, but it’s important for us to understand what is being learned and how that learning is occurring.

God has certainly created us wonderfully – the development of a child follows a very natural process. Children are born passionately eager to make as much sense as they can of the world around them. The process by which children turn experience into knowledge is exactly the same as that followed by scientists: children observe, wonder, speculate and question. They think up possibilities, make theories, hypothesize and then test their theories or reject them. If we attempt to control, manipulate or divert this process we disturb it; the independent scientist in the child disappears. If we fill the early years with skills that will naturally and easily come at a later age, children may miss out on building these foundational skills and lose the wonder at discovering for themselves.

Muscles in children’s legs need to develop and become strong before they can balance their bodies and begin to walk. Similarly, muscles in children’s arms develop and become stronger through using them; continual movements such as swinging, climbing, digging or pouring gives the children practise at skills and builds muscle, strength and vigour. Large upper arm development is required before the finer muscles in the hands begin to develop the strength to hold a pencil correctly. Foundational skills are vital for future development and skills. Ensuring children receive the right opportunities at the right time does not need to be overwhelming for adults - God created learning and development to be such a natural process that crucial foundational development, skills and knowledge can be achieved simply through PLAY.

Children in the three to eight age range acquire knowledge in significantly different ways from older children; they learn best through direct sensory encounters with the world and not through formal academic processes. Since early childhood is a period of rapid mental growth and development, children naturally seek out the stimuli they need to nourish these developmental abilities. This natural process can be damaged by well-intentioned adults who do not work with, but against a young child’s natural learning process. We all want to prepare children for success in our hurried world – we therefore need to recognise that play can be the perfect educational tool in early learning. The strength of traditional kindergarten and early school programs is that they understand and emphasise the significance of play.  

Success at school requires mastering thinking skills. Thinking skills involve using symbols of many different kinds: words, numbers, notations, pictures, computer images. Education builds on a child’s mastery of the use of symbols to represent ideas. The years from two to seven are crucial for laying down the foundation for this mastery. Children naturally create much of their own practise with symbols in play by drawing, block construction, modelling, painting or finger plays. Pretend play is by far the richest kind of play – pretending to be a dog or a lion, at the hairdressers or making a cardboard robot with loose materials, dressing up or arguing about who plays what role. All of this play involves symbols.

What is the role of kindergarten educators and teachers in Play? They set the scene for this rich symbolic play; they stimulate and encourage; they allow time and space to follow the child’s interests. They observe and help children join in. They contribute suggestions and may join in the play themselves. However they do not intervene to the extent of taking over the children’s play, so as not to disturb the natural process of learning as children explore and experiment in the creation around them.

God gave all humans a desire to play. Who doesn’t like to go out and follow their own interests for a while? Perhaps it’s through a game of golf, or darts, or to build Lego or rearrange the furniture in a dollhouse. The play adults engage in may be different to the play of children, however it is usually a highly engaging and desirable thing to do - because we are interested in it.
We want all of our children to be confident and successful learners. Heavily structured activities directed by adults are not the most effective way to provide the learning they need. The use of work-sheets, flash cards and drill (things children are usually NOT interested in) will not encourage young children to develop the skills they need to adapt to the workplaces of the future. Play, under the guidance of highly skilled teachers and educators, can lay the foundations of skills and knowledge that children will use for further learning.

The Early Years Learning Framework for Australia is called “Belonging, Being and Becoming.” MECS Early Years educators strive to provide learning environments that allow children to develop a sense of belonging at MECS, where they can follow their own interests and just be themselves, where the work of their PLAY is valued and recognised as an essential tool in the natural development of skill and knowledge, so that they can become the person God created them to be.
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