In this together

The Power of Play

Is child play and “free-time” frivolous and something no longer needed or valued in our world? In our fast-paced lives, do our children even have time to play?

I recently attended a forum led by Pasi Sahlberg, Professor of Educational Policy and Deputy Director at the Gonski Institute for Education School of Education. The discussion centred on the differences between the philosophy and culture behind educational practices in Finland and here in Australia. Professor Sahlberg highlighted a few key differences but one struck a chord with me; the power of play. Educational policy in Finland stipulates that children have the right to 15 minutes of play in each hour of learning, additional to Recess and Lunchtime. Play in Finland is generally outdoor play, despite freezing temperatures, and is always child led. It seems to me that children often aspire or are encouraged to grow up quickly and to therefore dismiss play as something superfluous and not conducive to real learning. Professor Sahlberg’s concept of children having a “right” to play inspired and challenged me to reconsider the function of play for children.

As someone who grew up in the 1970s, unstructured play both indoors and outdoors was very much part of my everyday life. As an educator and a parent, I have often queried how much time this current generation of children dedicate to simply playing, and whether the decreased focus on play is something that negatively impacts their development and wellbeing. Play was something I took for granted as a child and yet I wonder if children today have the same experience or feel the same sense of entitlement. According to research by the American Psychological Association, children today spend more time on competitive sports, additional academic pursuits and screen-based entertainment than any previous generation. Whilst these are meritorious experiences for children, I also wonder if we are risking the elimination of a child’s natural predisposition to exercise their curiosity and creativity by limiting their chances of unstructured play? Having listened to Professor Sahlberg and having read the latest research from around the world, I think the answer is a resounding yes!

Current research shows that play is a powerful tool in the social, emotional and even educational development of a child. It therefore concerns me to read statistics arising from a study of 1,000 students conducted by University College London’s Institute of Education which show that just 1% of Secondary School students now have down-time in the afternoon compared to 41% of students 30 years ago. A child growing up in Finland experiences a shorter school day than their Australian counterparts and the Finnish Primary School child has a guaranteed 15 minutes of play in each hour. By the time a child within the Australian education system is 15 years old they have had the equivalent of 5 extra years of face to face teaching than their peers in Finland. As a teacher, I know how much thought, time and effort teachers invest in planning and delivering learning opportunities for students. Yet despite the additional years of teacher instruction, Finland has, according to data from the OECD’s international PISA tests, outperformed Australia in terms of results in literacy, Maths, Science and problem-solving as well as subjective measures like student happiness and positive wellbeing for the past two decades. The emphasis on wellbeing through play in Finland is deeply embedded in their education system and has been for several decades. Whilst it is no simple thing to change government policy, the correlation between a focus on play and improved results academically and emotionally is something I believe is worthy of discussion in our schools and homes.

There are many different types of play; imaginative, physical, sociodramatic, symbolic to name just a few. What these all have in common is that they have a positive impact on a child’s cognitive, physical, social and emotional development. Children develop and practise social skills as they learn to respect one another through the rules they make and break through their collaborative games. I find it hard to keep up with the ever-changing versions of traditional chasing games in the playground, but the girls are quick to adapt to these rule changes and the joy each girl feels as she charges around the playground connecting with others is palpable. Play enables children to build social connections and it also fosters confidence and resilience as the girls learn to negotiate the rules and inevitable challenges to those rules!

At the end of Term I, I worked with a group of Year 6 leaders to review our Primary School House Families and to seek their ideas for activities in Term II. The girls enthusiastically shared their ideas and I admit I was surprised by the number of girls who requested the inclusion of traditional games such as Cat’s Cradle and Elastics. They also wanted time to “invent” games and dramas within their Family groups. The fact that they felt the need to ask permission to devise their own games made me stop and think. Are we guilty of trying so hard to engage our children in learning activities that we are in danger of overlooking the power of spontaneous, unstructured play? The games the girls requested had a distinct lack of “rules” and so, by their very nature, offered endless opportunities for imaginative thinking. This is the power of play. Unstructured play allows children the chance to explore, invent and think creatively and critically; all skills which are critical for the world they will enter once they complete their education.

Research suggests that play promotes self-initiated learning and offers a child agency over their learning. I only need to spend a few moments on the playground to see how true that is. At any given playtime there are girls involved in active collaborative play whilst others are building worlds with wooden blocks, some are quietly tracking native stingless bees in the flowers and others are testing their superpowers in fantastical worlds. This led me to reflect on the wise words of Sir David Attenborough who is, amongst other things, the Learning through Landscapes Patron. Sir David suggests that “outdoor environments can offer a very special kind of learning experience: the opportunity for discovery and learning through touching and feeling, the chance to explore and take risks, the stimulations of the fresh air and limitless skies. And yet, we are steadily depriving our children of these wonders.”

It seems to me that play enables children the chance to step outside the world we structure for them. Play offers children the chance to think boldly, to see and explore limitless worlds at their own pace. The power of play is simple; it helps children to show us and themselves what they are capable of. As we all aim to empower our girls and equip them with skills to take out into their world, perhaps play is something we should focus on as a superpower in their learning toolkit. Play can be a way of liberating thoughts, of embracing change, building resilience and forging social connections, all of which encourage a positive sense of self. Therefore, it seems to me that play and learning are inextricably linked and in the busyness of our world more important for children than ever before. Perhaps through their play, children can teach us all lessons on how to see the world and ourselves.

Kate Brown
Head of Student Wellbeing K-6