“All they do in Reception is play." I have heard this sentence many times since I started working in education from those who do not understand that "play" is actually the most vital part of early child development – and has a lifelong impact.
Play, or hands-on learning as it is more accurately termed, is at the heart of education and lays the foundations for our learners for the future. Our job, as educators, is to ensure our children are prepared for the world ahead of them – including preparing them for jobs that do not even exist yet. We need to produce a generation of creators and designers that can solve the world’s problems in years to come, and we can do this by ensuring that children develop the necessary skills from the youngest age possible.
The government’s own Early Years Foundation Stage Profile (EYFSP) recognises the importance of hands-on learning by promoting the three "characteristics of effective learning" – "playing and exploring", "active learning" and "creating and thinking critically". All of these are most effectively developed through hands-on learning.
Play boosts communication skills
Discussion, reasoning, speaking, listening, questioning and working with others are core skills in almost all aspects of our lives and these qualities are at the heart of hands-on learning, too. The more opportunities we provide for young learners to use these skills, the stronger they will become.
Indeed, when children play together they are not just having fun but building their communication skills and ability to share and collaborate with others. For example, a simple game of "Duck Duck Goose" is teaching children how to take risks, manage friendships and accept when they have been "caught".
Similarly, when children are presented with a hands-on learning task, such as using LEGO bricks to develop their own stories or retelling classic fairy tales together, they are given the opportunity to strengthen not only their imagination and confidence but also their ability to collaborate and share ideas with one another. And, once their first idea is finished, they have the confidence to dismantle it and build something new, another skill that will stand them in good stead for the future.
Hands-on learning and problem-solving
Hands-on learning is also essential for developing problem-solving skills and the ability to learn from mistakes. For example, providing the children with a Beebot and a maze to direct it through allows children to visualise and plan the most appropriate route, work out the steps needed to do this, sequence it in the correct order and programme it. If they make a mistake, it allows the opportunity to reconsider, work out where the mistake happened and try again: a routine that is very common in many tasks that an adult goes through in everyday life.
This also helps children to build resilience to keep going when something has not gone right the first time – another essential concept to be explored and understood from an early age. Children also need to understand the concept of uncertainty, and practitioners need to embed the fact that uncertainty is normal by providing opportunities to realise and overcome this.
Building lifelong learners
We do not know what the future holds for our children and generations to come, so we need to make sure that they can cope with whatever future challenges and opportunities they may face. To do this, children need to develop the skills to learn so that they can apply it to any context, whether that’s building the highest but most stable tower out of DUPLO as a four-year-old or creating a new bridge as an adult working as an engineer.
The hands-on learning opportunities we provide in an early years setting can be crucial for embedding these types of core skills that will serve them well for the future.
The muscles in the hands and fingers strengthen as a child grows. These key muscles develop during early years and if a child is not provided with opportunities to play with manipulatives that require the use of these muscles, they do not develop properly. Hands-on learning is a simple way to build in these opportunities.
For example, using a LEGO Coding Express Set, children will not only develop the ability to problem-solve using their science, maths and technology understanding, but also the use of bricks will help develop the muscles in their fingers and hands.
Engagement, enthusiasm and motivation
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that if one child enters the room to a worksheet and another to a room with a set of LEGO DUPLO bricks, with the same learning outcome expectations of sequencing and creating a story, the child with the bricks is going to be more engaged, motivated and want to complete the task – because it’s fun!
But the impact of learning through play and hands-on learning is much more than just about having an enjoyable experience. It is about developing the foundations of core skills that children need to become lifelong learners. Companies like LEGO Education already value this importance, providing research and many useful resources, such as its LEGO Learning Solutions lesson plans, to support the development of these key skills.
Ultimately, hands-on learning helps us to develop our children from an early age by providing the basis for all manner of key skills that will enable them to thrive, whatever the future holds. It’s certainly more than just "play", that’s for sure.
Sian Ward is assistant head and a computing lead in a school in south-west London