EARLY CHILDHOOD LEARNING
LET THE CHILDREN PLAY:
Nature’s Answer to Early Learning
Par Jane Hewes, PhD
Chair of the Early Childhood Education Program,
Grant MacEwan College
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
Play is essential for optimal development
Play is a universal phenomenon with a pervasive and
enduring presence in human history.1,2,3 Play has fascinated philosophers, painters, and poets for generations. Article
31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child
recognizes the significance of play in the lives of children, acknowledging play as a specific right, in addition to and
distinct from the child’s right to recreation and leisure.4 Early childhood educators have long recognized the
power of play. The significant contribution of play to
young children’s development is well documented in child
psychology, anthropology, sociology, and in the theoretical
frameworks of education, recreation, and communications.5
Being able to play is one of the key developmental tasks of
early childhood.6 Play is “the leading source of development in the early years”:7 it is essential to children’s optimal development.8
Children’s opportunities to play
are under threat
Ironically, play is persistently undervalued, and children’s opportunities for uninterrupted free play – both indoors
and out – are under threat. The physical and social
environments of childhood in the Western world have
changed dramatically over the past several decades.9,10
Many children are spending substantial time in peer-group
settings from a very young age. Many of these settings
focus on structured educational and recreational activities, leaving little time for participation in open-ended, selfinitiated free play.11 Children’s play advocates are concerned that access to
outdoor play opportunities in natural environments in
neighborhoods is vanishing. Technology, traffic, and urban
land-use patterns have changed the natural play territory
of childhood.12 Parents are increasingly concerned about
safety and children find themselves in carefully constructed outdoor playgrounds that limit challenge in the name of
The priority currently given to the early acquisition of
academic skills is another threat to children’s play.16 This emphasis often constrains and limits the scope of the
learning that unfolds naturally in play. The question of
how and what children should learn in preparation for
formal school is a subject of vigorous debate in Canada.
It used to be that children spent their preschool years
playing, whether at home, in child care, or in preschool
social settings. Many now advocate for early childhood
programs focused on literacy and numeracy experiences,
particularly in cases where social and environmental
circumstances potentially compromise children’s readiness
In recent years, the trend has been to introduce more
content via direct instruction into the practice of earlychildhood professionals. Research demonstrates that this approach, while promising in the short term, does not
sustain long-term benefits and, in fact, has a negative
impact on some young children.17 Long uninterrupted
blocks of time for children to play – by themselves and
with peers, indoors and outdoors – are becoming increasin gly rare.
The developmental literature is clear: play stimulates
physical, social, emotional, and cognitive development
in the early years. Children need time, space, materials,
and the support of informed parents and thoughtful,
skilled early-childhood educators in order to become
“master players.”18 They need time to play for the sake
What is play? Why is it important?
Almost any adult you meet can recall a pleasurable
childhood play experience, often in rich and vivid detail.
When we recall our childhood play, we talk about feelings
– of freedom, of power, of control, and of intimacy with
friends. Many of us remember endless,...
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and learning—inseparable dimensions in preschool
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49. Garvey (1990).
50. Moyles, J. (Ed.). (2005). The excellence of play.
51. Wood, E. & Attfield J. (2005). Play, learning and
the early childhood curriculum (2nd ed.) London,
52. Johnson, J.E., Christie, J.F., & Wardle, F. (2005).
54. Wardle, F. (2006). Play as curriculum. Early
Childhood News: The Professional Resource for
Accessed June 20, 2006.
34. Sylva, K., Bruner, J.S., & Genova, P. (1976).
36. Pellegrini, A. (1987). Rough-and-tumble play:
Developmental and educational significance.
(1983). Play. In E. M. Hetherington (Ed.), Handbook
of child psychology, Vol
45. Lillard, A. (1998). Playing with a theory of
33. Kalliala, M. (2006). Play Culture in a changing
16. Zigler, E.F. (2004). Play under siege: A historical
19. Hughes, B. (2003). Play deprivation. [Fact Sheet.]
uk. Accessed January 23, 2006.
44. Roskos, K. & Christie, J. (2004). Examining the
play-literacy interface: A critical review and future
53. Roskos, K. and Christie, J. (2001). On not
pushing too hard: A few cautionary remarks about
35. Blurton-Jones, N. (1976) . Rough and
tumble play among nursery school children
18. Reynolds & Jones. (1997).
43. Bergen, D. (2002) The role of pretend play in
children’s cognitive development
32. Bergen, D. (1998). Stages of Play Development.
(2002). Managing risk in play provision: A Position
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