Learning in the playground: the benefits of play

Playgrounds are happy environments where children engage their imaginations, socialise with their friends and get a refreshing break from the classroom. But more goes on in the playground than you think. The imaginative games of the playground are not separate from the learning that takes place in the classroom, they’re actually an extension of it.

Why less children are playing

Many families today lead very busy lives and this can impact the amount of time a child has to enjoy free play. With growing attention paid to children’s academic development and enriching extracurricular activities, children may have little or no time to play and use their imaginations away from adults. This has affected children in nurseries and preschools where time that was set aside for free play has been reduced for more activities with a purely academic focus.

Playing has numerous benefits for children, especially younger children who are just entering the education system. Being able to engage in exploratory play during childhood plays an important role in development. In fact it is as vital to each child’s development as any school subject and after-school hobby. The main benefits of play in early childhood education include physical, emotional, social and cognitive development. All crucial to growing up and learning how to live alongside others in society.

Hurrying pupils into intense learning frameworks that do not incorporate any play is not recommended. Although an attempt to prepare them for successful futures, at early ages, this can deprive children of room to explore and learn about the world and the people around them through play. When playing outside, children learn valuable life lessons which help them interact with the world around them and progress in later life.

Keeping kids healthy

Not only is it fun, outdoor play is really important for keeping kids physically healthy and active. Running as fast as you can to play ‘tag, you’re it!’ or inventing a magical world where you can run, jump, skip or fly all help to keep kids fit and healthy. Physical activity builds stronger muscles and can improve bone density, as well as heart and lung function.

Playing physical games outside is especially important for younger children. Through outdoor play, infants develop vital movement abilities. Especially at nursery, outdoor games that involve children reacting while moving and using all their limbs should be encouraged. This type of activity develops their reflexes and movement control as well as increasing their flexibility, balance and coordination. Later in life, this can contribute to increased confidence and enjoyment of sports and other outdoor pursuits which contribute to physical and mental wellbeing.

Outdoor play also offers pupils with a respite from focused classroom activities and screen-time at home. Our children today have access to various different types of technology that can inspire their creative skills and engage their minds in complex ideas. However too much time in front of screens can mean that the amount of time they spend moving around decreases. At home and at schools, time should be given to allow children the opportunity to play and be active. Giving their minds and their eyes a rest from the constant stream of digital information they are exposed to daily. In fact, research has shown that the brain benefits from time away from digital content. It often happens subconsciously but our brains are continuously re-processing and evaluating and so benefit from the ’head space’ in which to do this.

Managing emotions

Playtime also has an important role in a child’s emotional development. Free play gives children opportunities to develop the ability to resolve conflict, building up their personal resilience, confidence and patience with which to face challenges in the future. Through playing with other children as well as by themselves, children are taking part in activities which contribute to a healthy level of self-esteem and identity.

On the playground, children are presented with physical challenges through different types of playground equipment like monkey bars and climbing walls. Overcoming these physical challenges provides a sense of accomplishment that contributes to higher self-esteem. Taking risks through free play builds up a child’s self-confidence which helps with taking larger risks later on in life. Nursery playground equipment can offer physical challenges for children of all ages to overcome.

Not only does it allow children a safe space to grow emotionally, the playground is also a space where pupils can express themselves freely, using their imaginations. By creating imaginary worlds away from reality, children create safe places where they can use games to fully express their emotions and learn how to deal with things that scare them. Play encourages kids to experiment and act out different feelings, helping them learn how to manage their emotions and develop qualities such as empathy. It also helps to establish their sense of self.

Developing social skills

Most pupils look forward to break and lunchtime because it gives them a chance to see their friends. Play gives children the opportunity to play and socialise with their peers, both in and outside school. The school playground is a complex, social space where pupils learn life lessons in how to interact with others. Being able to play by themselves, in a pair or a group teaches children social norms and important relationship-building skills. All of which will be vital both now and when they are adults.

Solo play and creating games on their own helps children learn to be independent and creative by encouraging them to use their own imagination. On the other hand, playing with others teaches kids social cues and cultural rules for when they need to interact with others around them. How to work as a team, articulating ideas so that others can understand them, communicating effectively, forming new relationships – all these social skills are cultivated in the playground.

Cognitive learning

Giving children time to express themselves and explore their world through free play at school and at home encourages their cognitive development. Play can improve language skills and the ability to communicate ideas and opinions with others clearly and tactfully (although the latter may develop when children are a little older). It also encourages independent thinking, decision-making and problem solving skills.

Teacher-led, group games outside can help children when they first enter the education system in preschools and nurseries to develop their cognitive abilities. In fact, the Council for Learning Outside the Classroom sees time set aside daily for children to learn and play outside as fundamental for infants and younger children. This can easily be integrated into the school day by taking lessons outside, using outside games to aid learning, and make regular time for play outdoors. Games can also be a great source of motivation and stimulation to engage children in educational content in a novel way.

Balance learning with playtime

There is a common misconception that children should always be engaged in an activity that enriches their understanding or skillset. Many guardians feel time-pressured to provide opportunities for their children to take part in a wide variety of such activities inside and outside of school. This means that less and less children have time dedicated to undirected exploring, inventing and creating.

Another scenario is making a child’s imagination ‘redundant’ through provision of exciting and extremely stimulating digital games and technology. It is amazing the joy and bonds that can be produced through simple objects such as a pebble or a stick – in playground games these might be treasure or magic wands.

Ensure that your child has the best of both worlds. Select a learning environment that combines opportunities to develop your child’s interests and skills with focussed but fun learning activities and free time to play. A play and learn nursery can help your child grow intellectually, emotionally and socially by balancing the highest quality education with time set aside for children to become themselves in a secure and comfortable environment. But most importantly of all, it will foster a happy and confident child.

Games that may seem simply just for fun are anything but. Pupils learn how to focus on specific activities and control their behaviour and emotions. The playground is where children form and test relationships, learn how to negotiate different social situations and develop emotional intelligence. Their playtime is fundamental in preparing them for adulthood.

At our Cranmore Nursery School in Guildford, we understand that childhood should involve both time to explore, play and learn in order to cultivate one’s interests. Get in touch today or come to visit our play and learn nursery. Cranmore provide a safe, positive and creative environment where pupils can discover who they are and develop into well-rounded and happy individuals.