By Karen Downs
If we ask ourselves which skills are used on a regular basis, it quickly becomes apparent that most of these are developed within the first eight years of our lives. Moreover, we realise that these are time-sensitive and require interactions which are best accessed via ‘open-end play’ to optimise our understanding of how to use these effectively.
Through my travels and teaching experience, the one common thing that re-appears in every cultural context is that every adult reminisces about their own childhood, where play was a key part of our daily interactions. Repeatedly, you hear from parents that when they were young, they had the freedom to ‘play’ outside and to explore their surroundings without the need to apply pressure or to acquire formative facts, figures or to have a set outcome. It was open-ended and flexible to meet individual needs, interests and current level of learning.
Fast forward to the present day and reviewing how individual cultures see ‘play’, it is unquestionably accepted as being a natural part of childhood but with varying attitudes. Children all over are under pressure to understand abstract meaning more than ever before. Link this with being in a fast-paced changing world where childhood itself is being squeezed into an ever-decreasing timeframe yet with increasing and often inappropriate age-related expectation of early academic success. Reading and writing at three years in some developing countries is a prime example compared to western countries where this is introduced at a much later stage without any negative effect.
For many countries, play is seen as a ‘small window of time or related to a specific age-group’, with children suddenly being catapulted into a formal test-bound learning environment. As western societies are reverting more and more to play-based teaching and learning in the early years, it does not appear to be the same globally. Often ‘play’ overnight becomes less of a priority amid the pressures and distractions of adult-led schedules, where only ‘on the day’, test results measure success-at the expense of not seeing the whole child.
Analysing my experiences of teaching and learning in different cultural contexts the underlining feedback is that ‘play’ is without question the best platform for any child to learn. Understanding the significance and influence that play has on our children may vary from country to country. This is where it starts to be open to interpretation according to the local conditions or expectations of age-appropriate learning.
One common thread running through most educational contexts and our communities is that we are increasingly finding ourselves governed by push button technology and devices where we have an instant answer yet not always having the ability for abstract understanding of why. As a result, childhood and play-based learning is becoming restricted and under pressure to give way to formal abstract learning without understanding the underlying processes required. As a result children are becoming isolated from the wider community, lack the social, emotional, personal, language and physical skills that in previous generations would have been the norm at the expense of becoming heavily reliant on technology and subject only isolated learning.
Yet, if we look at children playing in any society, they are only too happy to be socially interactive, physically engaged, competent communicators where they can take a risk to find out something new, testing new theories or ideas but using an interactive and practical approach. This supports the child’s urge to explore their understanding and develop their innate drive to learn. After all, if we cannot take a ‘risk’ in our own learning to find our own solution to a problem then, how can we measure a real risk later in life?
Taking away the opportunity to learn through play only leads to putting unnecessary pressure and stress on our children to know the answer whilst yet they have not experienced or had access to concrete hands-on learning for specific skills to be internalised. This is restricting children’s ability to explore, experiment, understand and be physically interactive in the processes of finding a solution.
Unfortunately, it is not uncommon that once children reach lower primary school, they are already ‘switching off’ as they lose that urge and courage to take a risk in learning something new in fear of not knowing the expected answer.
As the world is becoming increasingly interlinked, many cultures are seeing play as a reward for completing an adult-driven task, for knowing the expected answer or finishing first. They do not accept that through play our children develop their holistic and often lifelong-skills for learning and that learning is not carried out in isolation of a specific subject or learning style. Thus, potentially leading to weak foundations for extending critical understanding and eagerness to acquire new information.
Globally one overriding factor that is being repeatedly incurred is the pressure being put on the access to ‘safe physical spaces’, which allow children the freedom to play, explore, investigate and discover new ways to apply our knowledge in all contexts of the meaning. Along with the need to know where children are by giving them mobile devices, do we need to ask ourselves are we making our children socially disabled? Is their ability for self-discovery and exploration decreasing their ability to gain long term and often time specific skills that affect their overall attainment both academically, emotionally and socially?
Utilising ‘play’ as a way of facilitating learning is not only a joyful experience for our children but also allows them to understand the requirements to be part of the community, make valuable contributions to society and equip them with the relevant skills and building blocks for greater independence in preparation for the future. Taking this a step further, it is not difficult to realise that in adulthood these will be the basis for leadership, innovation, problem solving, analytical thinking, creativity, emotional intelligence, risk taking, negotiation, social interaction, articulation of our ideas, acceptance and understanding of others, to name but a few.
(The writer is Academic Director of Wonderland Early Learning Centre, New Delhi.)