Learning Through Play

As an early childhood professional I often find myself saying over and over, “Children learn through play.” I defend play as not only a way to learn, but the best way for children to learn.

I was reminded recently of a simple study that shows how important play is for young children. Fifty years ago when this study was first conducted researchers brought children 3, 5, and 7 years of age into a lab and asked the children to stand still for as long as they could.

Standing still requires children use their executive functions in the higher centers of their brain, not only to remember they are standing still but also to stop themselves from doing something else which is called inhibitory control. Executive functions and inhibitory control have been in the news lately because research has shown how important these skills are to later success in school and in adult life. So they asked the children to stand still and the three year old could stand still for a not very long we will say less than 20 seconds, the five year olds could stand still a bit longer about 30-60 seconds, and the seven year olds were able to stand still for quite long nearing five minutes.

They repeated this with another group of 3, 5, and 7 year olds but this time they told them a story about soldier that had to stand at attention very still for a long time. Then the children were challenged to take on the play role of soldiers and stand still this play allowed the children to better self regulate, hold onto the idea of standing still, and stop themselves from moving or engaging in something else. The most dramatic increase was in the five year olds that were able to stand still by ‘being a soldier’ for three to five minutes.

The researches surmised that the seven year olds were only slightly effected by play scenario because they largely had the self regulation skills and the three year olds were only slightly effected by the play scenario because they struggled to take on and maintain engagement in the role.

Play is how children learn to self regulate. Children learn through mature dramatic play to build, understand, and apply rules. When children were place in a group and all pretending to be soldiers they were able to stand still even longer.

Sadly this study was replicated in 2001 and the researchers found that the five year olds of 2001 performed more like the three year olds of fifty years ago, and the seven year olds of 2001 performed more like the five year olds of fifty years ago.

Researchers speculate this change stems largely from today’s children having less unstructured play time, less opportunities for mix aged groups that promote mature play, and more toys with singular prescribed uses. We can best support our children by giving them time for uninterrupted play.

Read the Research


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