Have you ever thought about why we were so happy as kids? Have you also considered the differences between being an adult and being a child? Well, the main difference is that we (at least most of us) have stopped playing.
Text by Tanya Livarda(BA/ MA in TESOL, CELTA), EFL teacher, Oral Examiner
- The importance of play
As it has been acknowledged and recognised by the United Nations Committee for Human Rights, play is incredibly important for a child (Article 31 of the Convention on the rights of the child). Furthermore, pediatricians and other caregivers note that play is essential to a child’s development, something that has also been supported by research (Murphy, 2016; Lewis, 2016). It is even more important during the crisis we are now going through. But why?
- Play is important for children’s social development.
A well-known philosopher, Aristotle, once said that man is by nature a political animal who must live among other people and communicate with them. In any other case they are considered to be a wild animal (“θηρίο”). I am still not quite sure about this, but when we play with other people we share our ideas on how to play or we learn different ways of playing the same game. We also see something from another perspective. We explain, we negotiate and we step back, if we have made a mistake. Even when we play on our own we have the chance to learn and develop ourselves socially, especially during pretend play.
- Test…not working….test…not working…test…it works!
Play is the best way of failing -without being judged- and trying again and then failing again and then trying again until you have reached the expected outcome. And this is how we learn. Learning is not being told how to do something correctly. It takes a few hours, days or even years to make progress and play offers that to a great extent. Does this ring a bell to all of us?
- Creativity and imagination flourish…
We are aware of the fact that children are super creative. Just give your students a piece of paper, assign them a task and they will do wonders. The reason behind this is because they play. During play children are allowed to use their creativity and imagination to explore and interact with the world around them. There are different stages of playing which depend on the age. During early childhood, infants and toddlers imitate their parents or the people they see every day. For example, we all know a kid who has taken their fake phone and pretend to be their mother talking with their best friend. During childhood, play can take different dimensions as children share their games with other children and pretend play is wider. Play, on the other hand, is a means for self-expression for children who do not express their views or feelings easily.
- Play is an important aspect of healthy brain development.
Brain is the most complex organ in our body. We feel, we think, we touch, we see, we smell and we perform so many other things just by using it. Play forces children to use their motor skills (walk, run, write, assemble) and their senses (see, smell, taste, touch and hear). When all these happen the brain creates new connections, especially in the frontal lobe (i.e. regulates our emotions and attention, it is linked with high order thinking as well as with movement, reason and metacognition). These connections also help children to use past experiences to cope with the problems they are facing in the present. They also develop self-control, self-discipline and children that play are considered to be great problem-solvers. Therefore, an environment enriched with various experiences creates better brains (Zadina, 2014).
- Empathy (or emotional development/ intelligence)
Empathy is the ability to understand and feel what another person is feeling or thinking; i.e. to walk in someone else’s shoes. It is also the ability to understand and manage our own emotions. Play and especially pretend play or role play encourage children to identify what their characters would think about or feel. Children often take a situation that has already happened to them and transfer it to their play. There, they have the opportunity to compare their emotions, change the story and finally understand their own emotions. This is rather beneficial not only during childhood but also during adulthood. Embracing our emotions can lead to better collaboration, self-discipline and self-awareness and, to motivation.
- It is child-centred. No entry to adults (?)
When we are talking about playing, we are talking about free play which is child driven. It does not have to be organised or structured by an adult. It may take longer, it may include lots of failures but this is the way of learning and coping with challenges. When such a play is allowed, children develop all the above mentioned skills plus the ability to discover what they are truly interested in. On the other hand, adults, of course, should support their children by not instructing them or boosting their abilities (e.g. Look at how good I am!) and setting rules but just by playing with their kids or observing them. As a consequence, parents and other caregivers have the opportunity to learn from children by being in a child’s world.
- Let’s exercise!
Play improves the physical state. As stated before, children use their whole body to play, not only their brain. Therefore, they become actively engaged as all their muscles are moving.
- We all love playing!
Playing is fun, engaging and motivating. We can be whoever we want to be and wherever we want to be. We enjoy our time while we are playing. We have a good time! And this is the greatest message that our brain can receive.
- But why are we pointing out the obvious now?
Our reality, before COVID-19, was like a movie on fast-forward. A typical family included two parents working 24/7, kids that were going from one extracurricular activity to another- without having time to feel bored- and somewhere among these activities children had to study for school. On the other side, there were parents that forced children to be excellent, teenagers that did not like school and felt that there was no point studying and kids that wanted it all and wanted it now and a vicious circle had started.
On top of that, we are now in the middle or the end (who knows!) of the pandemic. We are tested, literally and metaphorically every day. Our main goal is to stay healthy and sane. However, unfortunately, I come across people from different ages and backgrounds telling me that they are bored, they have nothing to do and that the only thing they want is to play in front of a screen (the younger ones), eat and sleep (the older ones) and perhaps visit their friends. A quick conclusion for this reality is that people are not resilient anymore, they are emotionally and physically tired and they do not like living in a continuously changing environment. I can fully understand why this is true for an adult. But this is not how a child acts.
However, children at any age have a powerful tool in their hands; their ability to play. This free, child-centred play without rules, deaths or guns. Even good video games offer this. But do we guide our children to this heathy play or do we just put them in front of the screen without knowing what they are playing? Are we involved as adults (in the way described above) or do we watch the news and blame our own fate? Children tend to imitate our behavior and when adults show their children that they are stressed when a difficulty appears in their lives, then you may guess that the children will also be stressed during a difficult situation (e.g. before an exam). Therefore, we teach them through our behavior how to cope better in our life and how to be mentally healthy even when we struggle.
Play can offer this well-being or mental health to both children and adults. Play encompasses all the skills needed for someone to be physically and psychologically well. This is how you build resilience (Wright & Masten, 2005), patience, healthy behaviours, critical thinking and decision making.
- Practical solutions for playing in the classroom or in our house
Now that we have seen the importance and the benefits of play in our lives, it is equally important to see how to transfer those skills into our classrooms.
So, let’s play.
- Role play.
- Physics (cause and effect, floating or sinking, hot and cold).
- Creating figures from Playdough and then act.
- Read a book by using different sounds.
- Dramatised a book or a situation (with older classes).
- Use blocks or bricks.
- Use a piece of classical music to create figures with your body or to ask your students to react.
- Create a change cloud, emotions wheel (Youth First) : write down the change that has occurred and the feeling that this has caused you.
- Create and do puzzles.
- Make faces for various emotions, then freeze and let children think what might have happened for the child to have made this emotion.
- What is missing from my home, classroom or pencil case?
- Create paper airplanes and then create a story.
- Describe an object to someone while the other is creating it or drawing it. Are they the same? Or not?
- Use applications and online learning platforms (eg quizlet, quizizz, quizalize, wordwall, edpuzzle, gimkit, tubequizard etc).
And the list goes on.
Finally, the following list consists of some websites that I have found useful for practicing play in the classroom. You will find lots of valuable resources that will help you incorporate play in your lessons.
Play is an integral part of childhood and - why not adulthood? - which develops ourselves cognitively, socially and emotionally. We need to play more during this time. Life is unpredictable and it is continuously changing. It is difficult to plan and organize our lives. We are at this moment in our life that we must use our knowledge and our experiences to create new things and moments.
So.. keep learning, stay healthy and don’t forget to play!
1.Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights , Convention on the Rights of the Child. General Assembly Resolution 44/25 of 20 November 1989, [Internet], Available from: <www.unhchr.ch/html/menu3/b/k2crc.htm>, [Accessed: December 22 2020]
2.Lewis, L. (2016), Play: The foundation of children’s learning, RedLeaf Press.
3.Murphy, L. (2016), Lisa Murphy on Play: The Foundation of Children’s Learning, Redleaf Press.
4.Wright, M. O. D., & Masten, A. S. (2005), “Resilience processes in development”, In: Wright, M. O. D., & Masten, A. S. Handbook of resilience in children, Boston: Springer, pp. 17-37.
5.Zadina, N., J. (2014), Multiple pathways to the student brain: energizing and enhancing instruction, U.S.A.: Jossey-Bass.
Tanya Livarda(BA/ MA in TESOL, CELTA), EFL teacher, Oral Examiner