There are sound educational reasons as to why a play-based approach is a good idea in the early years of school. Young children may switch off from learning if all activities are teacher-led and they have to sit and listen for long periods of time. Play also develops children’s thinking skills. Children learn to think through problems, rather than learning facts. Knowing facts is not that useful in new situations. On the other hand, teaching children to be able to think creatively about a problem, without worrying whether they are right or wrong is a valuable skill. Many schools now teach thinking skills in their lessons but young children learn this through play. Fisher (1992) analysed the results of a number of studies into children’s play and concluded that children who are engaged in more pretend play perform better on tests of cognitive, language and creativity development.
Many schools in America are now implementing a ‘Tools of the Mind’ curriculum, which places great emphasis on play. The curriculum promotes make-believe play and suggests that children should develop play plans. Children and teachers sit down together in advance of play and talk about what they want to role play. For example, the children might plan that they are going to go to the moon and what they will need to get there. The children decide in advance what roles they are going to play, with rules about how to act (the astronauts have to carry out certain tasks such as collecting samples from the moon). The theory is that the play plans help children to think ahead and also to avoid conflict during the role play. Children are also encouraged to use symbolic props rather than real ones to develop their imagination, so for example, the children might use Lego or wooden blocks to represent the trains. Teachers encourage the children to say what they are doing during the play to develop language skills. Bodrova and Leong (2001) argue that play helps children to learn self-regulation so that they are better able to control their emotions and aggression. The ‘Tools of the Mind’ curriculum also encourages children to write on their play plans to help them develop their writing skills. Diamond (2007) found that children in ‘Tools’ classrooms had better self-regulation and achieved more on standardised tests than matched children in a traditional classroom.
Research also suggests that children need to have time for free play without constantly being involved in activities. Children can become anxious if they have too little time for free play. Barnett (1984) assessed children on their level of anxiety on their first day at nursery school. It was found that the children who were able to play freely had lower levels of anxiety than those who had to listen to stories. This supports the idea that play allows children to work through their conflicts and anxiety. Warren et al. (2000) found that the themes expressed in the play of 35 children aged 5 corresponded with the children’s anxiety at school and at home. Play was a way for the children to work through their worries. Another case, reported by Axline (1947) demonstrates the importance of play. At the age of 5 years old, a boy called Dibs was referred to Axline, a clinical psychologist specialising in play therapy for very disturbed behaviour. Dibs’ parents thought he might be brain damaged. Axline watched Dibs’ play carefully to look for emotional reasons for his disturbed behaviour. Dibs often played with dolls that represented his family and in one instance, he buried a doll representing his father in the sand. This was interpreted as hostility towards his father. Axline was able to uncover Dibs’ conflicts and problems through the therapy. Dibs’ relationship with his parents improved as did his behaviour at school. Dibs’ IQ was tested after the therapy and he scored in the top 1% of the population. By then he had no emotional difficulties.
I do think it is important to teach children to read, write and count at school at an early age, if they are willing. Research suggests that disadvantaged children can particularly benefit from learning literacy and numeracy at preschool. However, it must not be forgotten that children can learn through play. Perhaps the middle ground is for schools to adopt a ‘Tools of the Mind’ approach, which promotes more thoughtful, planned make-believe play alongside literacy, when children are young.