Learning through play: what are the benefits?

Play is one of the most misunderstood topics in education, says psychologist David Whitebread. Here, he sets the record straight

Helen Amass

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If you ask any early years practitioner how young children learn, you are likely to get the answer that they learn through play.

Yet, according to David Whitebread, developmental cognitive psychologist and former acting director of the Centre for Research on Play in Education, Development and Learning (PEDAL) at the University of Cambridge, most people are not very clear how this learning actually happens.

It seems that, despite a huge boom in research around play in recent years, there are still many misconceptions that exist around this topic.

“Play is probably one of the most misunderstood areas in relation to children’s education and development that there is,” Whitebread says, speaking on the latest episode of the Tes Podagogy podcast.

“A naïve view of play would be that play is something where children aren’t concentrating; there’s no effort involved. It’s just mucking about and there’s no particular benefits. But in recent research it has become increasingly clear why it’s advantageous to involve children in playful learning.”

Benefits of play

There are two areas where the evidence about the benefits of play is particularly robust, he adds. The first area is language.

“There is good evidence that being involved in imaginative play either with an adult, or with other children is advantageous in terms of young children’s language development,” Whitebread says.

The second area is self-regulation (the ability to recognise your own mental processes and take control of them), which is essential for young people to go on to later develop the type of “soft skills” that will allow them to work in teams, regulate their attention and communicate effectively with others.

This is particularly important, Whitebread points out, because studies have shown that in some ways, self-regulation is a stronger predictor of success than early reading: if a person can regulate their attention as a four-year-old, they are more likely to do better academically, go to a better university and get a better class of degree.

Learning through play

But how do teachers engage children effectively in learning through play? Whitebread suggests that the approach needs to be deliberate – it does not mean simply setting up a home corner for children to use while the teacher works with another group.

And some research has suggested that it can be helpful for an adult to be purposefully involved in the play as well.

“Some researchers and educators still hold to the view that it’s not really play if there is an adult involved. But what we’re beginning to understand is that it depends how the adult is involved,” Whitebread says.

What the adult has to do, he suggests, is become a “coplayer”. By doing this, they can help children to “elaborate” imaginative play in useful ways, enhancing the quality of the play and therefore enhancing the learning.

For this to happen, however, the adult needs to be “skilful enough to take the children’s lead with the play, but feed in ideas and vocabulary and so on, within the context of the play,” Whitebread explains.

But, he adds, there is still plenty of research to be done in this area.

“We’re only really starting to understand how all this works and thereby how we help children get better at it,” he says.

You can listen for free by downloading the podcast from iTunes or listening below.

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