In today's blog we wanted to once again reflect on the meaning of play. We've been looking at this recently and you can check our previous blogs 'This isn't play - it's work!' and 'Today this could be... the greatest play of our lives!'
Why should we care if an activity has lots of play involved? Well, play supports the development of cognitive, emotional and physical skills. Play is so powerful in doing so because through the very nature of play we are engaged in what we are doing. We enjoy the activity and we want it to continue. For adults, it's possible for us to force ourselves to stay engaged with activities, but we all know that if we're not enjoying something we will take less away from it. For children it is so much harder to stay engaged with an activity they are not enjoying. So if we take all the play out of something, then a child is less likely to learn from it.
As we've already talked about, play needs to have a level of control. If too much control is taken away from a child then we can't truly call it play. So what about when we control what the outcome of their play will be? For example, if an adult sets up a creative activity to make birthday cards. A child chooses to come and make one and the adult shows the child what their finished card will look like. The adult supports the child to make the card in a very specific way. We're sure you're already saying to yourself "This isn't play!" and we'd agree with you. There may well be learning going on - for example, practising specific practical skills or developing language. Would the learning have been more meaningful and/or deeper if the child had more freedom to play?
Play can often have a goal, for example the objective may be to make a birthday card or to construct a bear cave. But it's really only play if that objective is an integral part of the activity and not the ONLY reason for the activity. You might have experienced this if you've had a creative activity that develops in stages. For example, when we made Easter cards once, the children could either use a foam egg or cut and decorate their own. For some of the children the process, the actual cutting and decorating of the egg, was something they wanted to do and this increased the levels of play for them. Some of the children didn't value that process and just wanted a card to give to their parents and so their activity wasn't play.
If the child values the process as much as, or even more the finished outcome, then the activity has a level of play to it. If you could just as soon as provide the child with the finished outcome and they don't care, then the activity isn't play. So, with this in mind we need to be careful when we intervene with play. If a child is being creative, take their lead. Ask open ended questions and be careful not to get them valuing the finished outcome too much. This is really important for children with low self-esteem because play is a much safer way to try things! When we value the finished article too much a child may feel that theirs isn't good enough and so may end up not trying at all. If we value the process more, if we value the inherent play, then children will be more inclined to have a go. And will therefore be more likely to learn things along the way.
We just wanted to reiterate that it might be more helpful to think of activities taking place on a spectrum of play. What we mean is, there will be activities that are more 'pure' play activities and activities that have less play taking part. We don't want anyone to be thinking we're saying you shouldn't be offering activities that 'control' the play or are more adult led. These activities may well be important to teaching new skills, for example. What we want to do is help you to think about the activities you offer so that you can think critically about if they are providing the learning that you want them to.
So if we want the most impact from our activities, value the process more than the outcome. And keep it playful!