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Facilitating Learning Through Play

by Beverley Paine

Play is the central component of the early childhood learning environment, whether it is a child care centre, preschool, junior primary school classroom or home. Past this age, however, society devalues play as a means of learning, and learning environments traditionally discourage play and the playful element in children's lives. Increasingly, research is demonstrating the value and importance of play in child development, not only in the area of social learning, but also in intellectual, emotional and physical growth.

Recognising the intrinsic value of play as a way children learn and make sense of their environments and the interactions within it, is the basis of a natural learning approach to education, and begins with the birth of the child and develops as a process as the child grows. Using a theory of learning based on children's play may sound simple and easy to implement in a child's life, however, most adults need to overcome their unbuilt prejudices toward the role of play in life in general. People in western societies have come to separate the notions of play and work, and to unconsciously reward work with play instead of integrating them to fulfil each individuals' potential growth. As a result, parents interested in following such an approach will need to challenge their own and society's values constantly, seek support in their endeavour, and consciously plan to include play as a central element of their child's learning at all stages.

Before play can be successfully integrated into the daily routine of the home, not only for the very young child, but as a continuing learning strategy for older and even teenage children, effective management practices and self-learning attitudes need to be in place. Parents need to be in contact with others attempting the same approach, and to actively educate themselves in the area of child development and learning. Self-education doesn't necessitate a formal approach, but does involve the exchange of ideas and thoughts, and experimentation with evaluation. Implementing this approach requires a great deal of organisation and thought; although all children play, enhanced learning and maximising children's learning potential occurs only when conditions for encouraging play are optimal and valued.

There are three essential components to implementing a natural learning approach: planning, involvement and evaluation. Rather than these forming a linear progression, they function, in reality, as a spiral, one leading directly into the other and affecting the third in continuous motion. This complexity of action requires adequate support mechanisms in place for parents, and good management practices. The goal of most families is to adopt a playful approach in the implementation process, and to enjoy the experience, both the self-learning aspect and the inherent fun.

To gain an understanding of how these components work in relation to each other it is useful to consider them separately.


It is helpful if the parent is familiar with current child development theories and developmentally appropriate practices, information which may be gathered form journals, books, magazines and other media sources as well as other families. Such background knowledge is inseparable from the planning process and enables the parent to see both the learning environment and the experiences occurring within it from the child's perspective, an essential element in the playful approach to learning. Actively remaining in contact with recent information gives parents a strong basis for defending and promoting their chosen educative path for their children to others, and to constantly re-evaluate their practices. An ability to confidently justify play as the central element of the children's learning demonstrates and reinforces its importance, and grows out of an understanding of knowledge gained both from direct experience and other sources.

Complementing this, the parent's own observations are a key aspect of the planning process. Observations have the potential to reveal the skills, competencies, existing conceptions and interests of individual children and becomes a window into the child's social, emotional, intellectual, physical and language development, enabling modification of play experiences leading to optimal growth.

Observation may include times set aside, without interaction with the children, to just note what is happening, either informally or using prepared material designed specifically for that purpose. This can occur at any time during the day, and unlike the diary approach is anecdotal, based on what is happening immediately. Observations include not only what the parent sees and hears, but also any questions, hypotheses and experiments the children make, as well as questions and conclusions separate incidents may provoke in the parent. This type of recording can also be used for periods when the parent is interacting with the child, usually recorded as soon as possible after the interaction. Records from both times of observation reveal different aspects of the child's growing and learning process.

Parents can then compile information gathered in this way into a diary or other recording format and integrate it into daily planning, using it to build up a picture of individual needs and development. Such records form the basis of a sound and comprehensive learning program based on play. It is important to keep recording in perspective and not to overdo it or focus on it instead of the potential benefits derived from the process. The recording itself is not important, it is the ability to reflect on and evaluate the content of the recording which leads to enhanced learning experiences for the child.

Useful information from other sources can be recorded and utilised in reflecting on children's developmental needs. Talking with other adults who interact with the children, or the children themselves, can provide information from a fresh perspective about the kinds of play and play material the child likes or dislikes, level of social interaction, as well as existing abilities and conceptions the parent may have overlooked.

The nature of a natural learning approach is one which emerges from the concepts evident in, and directions of, children's play . This requires considerable skills in orchestrating both the physical environment and time available, in addition to a good knowledge of desired learning areas and principles of child development, or an active desire to acquire them as needed. Parents need to be flexible, open to sudden changes in the direction of play and able to accommodate the play needs of individuals or groups of children as necessary. Allowing adequate time for children to plan and carry out play ideas is also vital to the learning process.

Although parents may feel the children have unlimited access to free choice in their activities, the daily routine of most families often restrict this. Free choice activities need to be a major component of the children's day, and has been shown to promote self-confidence, creativity and improved attention span. Parents need to be aware of the educational value of free, undirected play, and to allow it priority. This approach requires extreme flexibility as it means children are allowed to play spontaneously, following the directions of their thoughts as they occur, with the parent facilitating and accommodating the children's play needs.

Such an unstructured approach could be chaotic without a supportive physical environment and effective play planning. Structuring the physical environment is dependent on the observations of the children's play and the parent's knowledge of specific areas of learning content and skills desired, and is a dynamic process.

By interacting with their environment children explore and form concepts, revisiting ideas with increasingly complex understandings. It is the parent's responsibility to maintain a fresh and interesting environment which reflects the children's needs, offering challenges while providing a friendly, secure base to move forward from. In order to take risks in their play children need to feel confident their needs will be met. Often space is limited and to provide workable solutions parents need to be creative.

The physical space and the elements within it dictate usage patterns, however, parents can manipulate movable furniture to create boundaries and pathways, regulating the flow of the play and children, and dividing the space into specific play areas which lead naturally to, or borrow from, adjacent ones. In this way specific play activities can expand, without overt direction by a parent, into using additional materials not normally associated with that play, or into different directions, merely by facilitating location of compatible play forms adjacently.

For example, storage and space for play with miniature toys can be located next to small and large blocks, which may be situated close to art and craft materials or dramatic play props. Miniature toys placed next to mathematical or scientific materials encourage playful experimentation, often with the result of combining fantasy and intellectual play and enhancing language development.

Children need the stage set for a variety of play situations; small enclosed spaces offer comfort and security invariably needed on occasion, exciting play props for dramatic play, or simply a place to cuddle up with a book. With a little creative thought all rooms in a house can provide a stimulating play space for children's play. Attention to hard and soft surfaces, and other contrasts such as noisy and quiet areas, clear spaces and busy storage spaces are necessary concerns for the parent. Parents need to create child-free spaces to retreat to, but allow children to explore and manipulate the rest of their environment to suit their immediate play and learning needs. This often means sacrificing the notion of a beautiful, ordered house until perhaps the grandchildren are grown!

Objects which have multiple uses (given a little imagination!) are often a bonus in such an environment. An understanding of how space affects the behaviour and play of children is essential in designing both inside and outside environments and manipulating them on a daily basis, to provide maximum stimulation and potential for children's play.

The provision of play accessories needs to be tailored to the developmental needs of the children. Preferably only quality materials of a high standard, which promote anti-bias attitudes and reflect gender, cultural, physical and occupational diversity, should be included, and these need to be kept in good repair. Fortunately there are many items available at reasonable cost - a few well chosen quality toys, supplemented by a range of realistic and non-realistic props, including junk and open-ended play materials is usually all that is necessary. Where there are many children interacting suitable quantities of playthings and props, or alternatives, are needed to avoid disputes which interfere with the spontaneous flow of play. Storage is an practical consideration, as playthings and props should be introduced as needed, and changed frequently to maintain interest, with the parent following the cues given by the children, anticipating their needs or reacting to their requests.

As the "stage manager" or custodian of the play environment the parent needs to spend considerable time organising it, both co-operatively with the children and alone. Time spent in organising is repaid, as children's needs in such an organised environment are less demanding, enabling parents to choose participating or assisting with the play, or simply observing the play in progress while they engage in their own activities.


Maintaining a playful environment and seeing to the physical necessities of play are only part of a successful natural learning approach, with the ability to fulfil several different roles with respect to the children's play activities also important.

Involvement signals to the children the validity of the activity and its value as a learning experience, promoting positive and constructive activities. It can offer ways to enrich and elaborate the play leading gradually to higher levels of performance and enjoyment. Research indicates reasons for involvement such as creating rapport between children and adults, acting as buffers against distraction thereby encouraging persistence in play activities, promoting social and cognitive development, and also in serving the important function of extending language and thinking development by encouraging the children to talk about their play.

It is important to remember, whether becoming involved as an outsider to the play in progress or as a member of it, to allow the children to retain some control of their play, also for it to be based in the children's interests and experiences, and to trust their approach and methods, valuing the play as a fun activity. Although the opportunity exists for adults to enhance learning opportunities through play, playing is the children's medium for learning and too much interference in the autonomy of that experience may have negative effects.

Research stresses the need for involvement to create opportunities for meaning to emerge in context for children in playful situations. In this, timing is a critical factor, and requires a sensitive approach arising from meticulous observation of the children at play. Over the years researchers have created and adapted many models of involvement parents can adopt. Some operate peripherally, without participating in the play directly, by offering comments and suggestions or asking questions, or simply facilitating the play by removing or supplying play accessories and props as required. It is important not to promote the content of play or manage the activities, in effect taking control of the direction of the play. Redirecting activities which clash or are occurring in inappropriate areas to more suitable settings is another function that is useful in children's play for parents, and again depends upon interested observation.

Parent's roles of conflict resolvers can be creatively expanded to provide playful solutions to disputes, demonstrating a constructive and problem solving approach. In solving disputes parents can utilise and mediate the children's own ideas, or suggest alternatives in terms of materials or roles. Another way to be involved without participating directly involves making sure children are able to participate in on-going play with other children. Sensitive parents can use the play in progress to facilitate this either by introducing an accessory or suggesting new roles, thereby creating opportunities in the game for newcomers to join in smoothly.

Most of the above roles are ones which help or encourage the play of children to progress smoothly without interruptions or problems. It is also possible for parents to participate more constructively in the play. The least interactive of these, playing alongside of or parallel to the child without becoming involved in the child's activity, models play behaviour, validates play as a worthwhile activity, can offer comfort and security needed by some individuals, and may extend the child's repertoire of play ideas

Parents can momentarily immerse themselves into roles which encourage, extend or revitalise the play without engaging fully into the activity, and thus expand the learning involved. Again the timing for such involvement should arise from the children's cues, either by direct request or suggestion, or by observation should not be disruptive or intrusive. Organising home and work needs to facilitate free time for parents to interact with children directly in their play is a necessity in the natural learning approach.

When involved in children's play parents need to adopt the use of open-ended language, and allow the children to explore and learn through trial and error. Involvement can range from adopting temporary roles to encourage or extend the play, to taking greater control and direction, initiating specific activities to provide appropriate development learning opportunities. In such instances involvement needs to be skills, and not content, centred and relevant to children interests and abilities.


Only by constantly evaluating and observing the interaction between the self and the children in play can parents develop the skills and knowledge required to determine when and how to become involved, and fortunately this process is largely an innate one. In planning for play parents need to consider how they relate to the child, and what they want the child to conceptualise in the play activity.

Evaluation is an ongoing process, born out of observation and focussed recording. Parents need to develop an active self-evaluative process, where they are open to, and seek, constructive advice and criticism from their peers and their children, focussing on their ability to provide opportunities for play and playfulness to occur in the learning environment.

As part of the complex spiral of components involved in implementing a natural learning approach based on play, evaluation is necessary to enable judgements and decisions regarding changes or adjustments to practices to be made on a day to day basis.

Whereas once it was common to consider the provision of appropriate materials and a stimulating environment was sufficient in facilitating learning through children's play, researchers are discovering the importance of the role of the adult becoming involved in the play process. Educational practice has long upheld the following as necessary to promote effective learning in children; security, choice, purpose, information, time, motivation, direct experience, interaction, support, challenge, practice and materials. All of these are able to be provided in the home by parents within a play context, and would achieve the goal of promoting excellence in both education and child development.

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Beverley Paine with her children, and their home educated children, relaxing at home.

Together with the support of my family, my aim is to help parents educate their children in stress-free, nurturing environments. In addition to building and maintaing this website, I continue to create and manage local and national home educating networks, help to organise conferences and camps, as well as write for, edit and produce newsletters, resource directories and magazines. I am an active supporter of national, state, regional and local home education groups.

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We began educating our children in 1985, when our eldest was five. In truth, we had helped them learn what they need to learn since they were born. I am a passionate advocate of allowing children to learn unhindered by unnecessary stress and competition, meeting developmental needs in ways that suit their individual learning styles and preferences. Ours was a homeschooling, unschooling and natural learning family! There are hundreds of articles on this site to help you build confidence as a home educating family. We hope that your home educating adventure is as satisfying as ours was! Beverley Paine


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