At Naturally Gathered, we are huge advocates for play. Since play is central to what we do, we felt it was an appropriate place to start. We believe that it is the foundation to a child's learning in and about the world. More than that, it is a place where they can find joy and pleasure, through exploration, trial and error. With children spending increasing amounts of time with adults, I think that it is important to consider what valuable play looks like and how, we as adults, are supporting or interrupting this process.
Peter Gray, the inspiring psychologist who's ideas helped push Naturally Gathered from an idea to reality, wrote a book called Free To Learn (2013) The book draws on his extensive experiences and research conducted on play. Since he is such a guru, we are going to piggy back and explore his wonderful definition, which he has divided into 5 seperate elements. So here they are.
1. Play is self-chosen and self-directed
Play that has the most value is driven from our internal desires. It is in these moments that we find the most joy and learn far more than in activities whereby we are obliged or forced to do. Sometimes even the subtleties of the adult-child power dynamic can be enough to corrupt the play, whereby the child is trying to please the adult rather than embracing their own ideas and curiosity. Plays value comes from it being self-chosen and self-directed.
2. Play is motivated by means more than ends
Take a moment to consider the activities the fill our daily lives. Most, we complete in order to reach an something at the end, an outcome or reward. We drive to get to a destination or study to pass the test. Consider how the very same activities can be experienced quite differently; we drive for fun (e.g. country drive, 4WD or racing) or we study to learn about something we love. These second example more closely resemble play, as the focus is on the process not the outcome. During play the outcome or reward at the end is virtually irrelevant.
Studies over the years have demonstrated that having a reward or outcome focus changes the experience for those engaging in the activity. It no longer feels like play. One example was a research study completed in the 1970's by a group of researchers at University of Michigan. In short, children were randomly split into different groups and they discovered that children who were offered a reward to do drawing with felt tip pens drew worse drawings and spent half as much time drawing with felt tip pens in future sessions, when compared to the group of children who didn't know about or get rewards. They discovered that by offering a reward they essentially managed to change the experience of the play and made it less appealing by making the focus the end outcome or reward.
3. Play is guided by mental rules
The rules come from the minds of the players! How exciting is that! This means that children can fly, goals scored by younger players can count as double and most importantly there can be 3 Elsa princesses (if all the players can agree). And importantly a child accepts the 'rules of play' with the understanding that they can quit at anytime - true freedom!
4. Play is imaginative
You know, where the broom is a horse, the cardboard box a car and there is water in an 'empty' cup. Whilst the player knows that the broom is actually a broom, within the state of play the broom is actually a horse and to admit otherwise would ultimately end the play. Sometimes we think that children are too engaged in their play and need reminding that it is just play, but in most cases they already know and this just interrupts the play.
5. Play involves an active, alert, but non-stressed frame of mind
Play is a dynamic experiences that is very involved and therefore requires a the player to be both active and alert. And "because the players attention is focussed on the process more than the outcome, and because the realm of play is removed from the more serious world where consequences matter, the players mind is not distracted by fear of failure." (Free to Learn, 2013) This creates a low stress environment for players to get the most out of the play.*
And that is play in a nut shell. Basically, if you can leave your ego at the door, enjoy the process rather than focus on goals of play (e.g. learning colours or numbers), allow them to take the lead and embrace the imaginative nature of it you will be just fine! Keep an eye out for future articles where we explore the strategies to support free play and the impact of testing questions within play.
This got you curious? Get your hands on a copy of Free To Learn by Peter Gray from the library (don't spill tea on your like I did), book stores or online. You wont regret it.