Are Our Kids Receiving High-Quality Learning?
Australia is a lucky country. Many of us think we have the best education possible. We think our educational programs are the best available. We think there’s nothing to worry about.
On the 21st of March, that belief changed for many Australian parents, as the Herald Sun published a startling story. It revealed that Melbourne University researchers have tracked almost 2,500 three and four year olds, and the results weren’t what we expected.
The statistics speak for themselves:
> 87% of early learning services have low-quality teaching geared at turning play into learning.
> Only 1% have high-quality learning geared at turning play into learning — 99% are missing out!
And to rub salt into the wound, children who are the most disadvantaged get the least amount of play based learning.
With these new insights, it is perhaps less surprising that a global report on educational performance shows Australian 15-year-olds are getting worse at maths, science and reading.
But does all that have to do with Nobel prize winners? We’ll get to that in a second, but first let’s look at the importance of learning through play.
What Can We Do?
Nancy Carlsson-Paige is an early childhood development expert and professor emerita of education at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Nancy recognises, “We have decades of research in child development and neuroscience that tell us that young children learn actively — they have to move, use their senses, get their hands on things, interact with other kids and teachers, create, and invent.”
To learn, kids have to play.
While our education system may not be achieving the results we would hope for, it doesn’t mean our kids have to miss out. You don’t need a masters degree in teaching to know how to play. We can educate our kids by playing make believe with them, giving them educational toys, and letting them build and explore through play.
We can educate our kids simply by playing with them.
You may be wondering, besides putting a big smile on their face (which already makes play worthwhile), what are the actual benefits of play and educational toys? What skills are kids developing when playing princess, building with blocks, and hand painting? And could play really be a foundation of Nobel Prize winners? In the next section, we answer those questions.
Seventeen Benefits of Play and Educational Toys
Does playing as a child make you a genius later in life? Researchers at Oxford studied the early childhood behaviour of the creative geniuses of our society, such as Nobel Prize winners. The study indicated that early childhood games and play are more frequent among Nobel Prize winners than other professionals in their field. Playing make believe as a child does make you smarter, or at least more inventive, later in life.
Yet Mums don’t need researchers to tell them that, they intuitively know playing leads to learning. For example, Jo, a Mum of two and writer of www.slummysinglemummy.com, says “Benefits wise, the clue really is in the name with educational toys! The main thing for me is that kids end up learning without even realising it, whilst having fun. We put so much pressure academically on children nowadays; educational toys offer the opportunity to be teaching our children new skills but without them feeling the need to ‘perform’.”
When we focus on having fun, we naturally learn, and then later perform better — much like the Nobel Prize winners.
But as the tutoring company Tutoring For Excellence recognise, “We often have to be creative when it comes to learning and encouraging students to grasp new problem solving skills.” Learning through play is important. But as Tutoring For Excellence know, it’s not always easy; “To help them with this we often use educational toys to make their learning more interactive, fun and effortless.”
So what are the skills that playing can teach kids? What are the benefits they get that will make them excel in life? Let’s take a look…
1. Motor Skills—Coordination
Holding a paintbrush, building with blocks and even finger painting all are essential to developing fine motor skills in children. And as kids play on a jungle gym or the monkey bars, they develop muscle control.
2. Language Development
The more toys kids play with, the more concepts they’re confronted which expands their database of words. Playing with toys creates a powerful incentive to communicate, if they want their favourite toy, they know they need to ask for it.
Furthermore, studies have shown cognitive benefits such as increases in language usage including subjunctives, future tenses, and adjectives from engaging in make-believe games.
3. Decision Making
Games inherently require decisions. For example, a kid can play the same game over and over again, because they are testing out all the different decisions they can make during the course of the game. They learn what works, what doesn’t, and how to make better decisions.
4. Visual Learning
When kids are playing with their toys, they are developing their visual-spatial skills, learning about 3D objects, and build an understanding of the symbols, aesthetics, design, and tools that dominate our modern world.
When you see kids building with blocks, do you ever see them reading the instructions? Never. They are working it out by themselves, trying different things. They’re inventing. And innovators are exactly the people the world is rewarding more and more.
6. Cultural Awareness
Kids and culture? Absolutely. We don’t suddenly turn 18, and suddenly become a well-rounded adult that respects the people around us. We learn values like acceptance and tolerance by sharing toys with others, as well as being exposed to a diverse group of toys and characters.
7. Improved Academic Performance
The underlying premise of this post is that we should focus on playing and not on academic performance for kids. That’s true. We should focus on play. But it’s important to recognise that by focusing on play, it will improve a child’s academic performance significantly from ages 8 and up.
8. Emotional Regulation
Emotional regulation is a foundational skill — it helps us deal with difficulties and persist through challenges and difficult circumstances. For example, consider a kid who witnesses a scary event. They will often go and put on their Superhero costume, which helps them learn to be courageous when facing fear.
Furthermore, play can be fun when you build a big castle, but disappointing when it falls down. That helps kids learn to express positive and negative feelings in a healthy manner. Play also helps kids integrate emotion with cognition, reduce aggression, delay gratification, and increase civility.
You don’t need a poster of multiplication table to begin learning mathematics. As a child sets a tea party, they are counting to make sure they have enough cups and saucers. And the winner of a toy soldier battle usually is whoever has the most soldiers. Or consider rhyming songs, a tool that Tutoring For Excellence use to help their students, “We have noticed and experienced that when children learn a rhyming song they are more than likely to remember it.”
Games of tag and sports help kids build the teamwork that will help them excel in group settings.
12. Divergent Thinking (a.k.a. Creativity)
When playing, kids come up with different ideas, story themes and use symbols. This is practising creativity at a fundamental level. Helping kids to connect ideas and see the same thing in multiple different ways.
13. Social skills
Children talk to each other more often and more easily when they’re sharing toys. Playing with others teaches kids what others are thinking and feeling, and what brings approval or disapproval. As psychotherapist and coach Shane Warren said, “What makes play so important is that it introduces children at the very beginning of life how to engage and interact with the world around them, whether that be mixing with other people or just the having a tactile connection to the physical environment that surrounds them.”
14. Analytical Thinking
Meredith, who writes the blog www.themomoftheyear.net helped her son develop his analytical thinking. She comments, “As my son progresses in elementary school, we’ve had so much luck with coding, circuit and puzzle games, which feeds his interest sans the video games!”
15. Spacial Awareness
Babies are born without the concept of gravity. What we take for granted, kids must learn. For example, an infant may be playing with a rattle and drop it. It falls to the floor. Then when you hand the rattle back, they drop it again. To us, that’s annoying. But to a baby, that’s a learning experience.
16. Build Muscles
Riding bikes, building castles and jumping rope all build kids muscles. The more they play, the more active they are, and the more they can build their muscles.
18. Scientific Thinking
Joseph Steinberg is a CEO, tech influencer and most importantly, a parent. He has also written about tech toys for Inc. magazine, and has some interesting insights on how toys can help kids learn; “It is imperative for children to learn the process of scientific reasoning, yet, teaching the abstract concepts involved is sometimes difficult to do in formal training venue such as a classroom. Often, it is more effective to instill such knowledge via experience — for example, by introducing a child to toys and games that when played, cause him or her to design experiments and reason based on their results. There are many such toys and games available today – some are computer based, others involve no electronics at all; either variant, or both, can make valuable contributions to a child’s development.”
And Joseph isn’t alone. The founder and CEO of Fizzics Education, Ben Newsome, helps his team provide interactive science workshops to over 300,000 Australian schoolchildren each year. They make science come alive—even at preschool and for toddlers. So what’s Ben’s advice? “Get things into their hands! We’ve found through years of running science visits to preschools that children as young as 3 years old can learn basic scientific concepts when they’re given the chance to explore models and toys that reflect the real world.”
Tutoring For Excellence follow a similar approach, “When it comes to chemistry, physics and biology we like to teach our students content through real experiments, for this we use educational toys such as mini kids microscope, kids chemistry kits, etc. We try to engage our students through real life learning by engaging them in interactive learning situations with the help of planted gardens, butterfly gardens/science sets, kinetic sand and crystal growing kit to make them understand how things in real life work. They’re all around us, for example, doctors use chemistry to make medicine to help us when we’re ill, chefs use chemistry to cook delicious meals (here we often use kitchen science kit), etc. When kids understand chemistry, biology and physics they will better understand who the world around them works.”
These seventeen benefits develop well-rounded, happy and successful children, who grow to become healthy and happy adults.
Learning To Play For A Lifetime
Jennifer Campbell founded Facilitated Learning, where she runs customised learning programs for organisations. She helps her clients see their problems in a new light, helps them break their imagined ‘rules’ and create new solutions. Essentially, to find new insights she encourages adults to play.
But why would she help adults? Shouldn’t they have learnt to play as children? Well, yes, we’d hope so, yet many adults never learnt, or simply forget after many years of formal education.
One of Jennifer’s clients was a big accounting firm, where she was brought in to help the senior accountants and partners re-create their presentation. The material was thorough, but remained a dry 145 slide presentation on Tax law. She needed to bring something out of these serious accountants, to develop a more compelling presentation.
Jennifer also has nieces and nephews, who she plays with and reads to often. One lesson she has learnt from them is, “We develop superpowers when we put on our superhero uniforms.” She recognises, by acting differently we bring out something we didn’t know we had.
She took this approach to the accountants who were building their presentation. She helped them play with ideas and throw out every possibility. For a moment, they forgot about sounding silly. And that helped them uncover an answer to the questions; What is tax law really about? What would make people care?
So what was their dry 145 slide presentation on tax law transformed into? A new presentation, titled; How To Cook The Books. It got to the core of what they were doing; helping prevent fraud, yet did it in a novel way that enthralled their clients.
Learning from play isn’t only something to speed up development as a child, it’s a tool that helps us be more successful throughout our entire life.
Clearly, to be partners at a big accounting firm, Jennifer’s clients were high-achievers. They were successful. Jennifer brought out the best of them by using play to evoke creativity. But Jennifer can’t be there for everybody, every time they have a presentation.
We must embed learning through play in our children so it’s a tool they constantly have access to their entire life. After all, the difference between successful professionals and Nobel Prize winners, was how much they played as a child.