in support ofLearningthrough playStrengthening learningthrough play in early childhoodeducation programmes
2 Learning through play Strengthening learning through play in early childhood education programmesPublished by UNICEFEducation Section, Programme Division3 United Nations PlazaNew York, NY 10017, USAwww.unicef.org/publications United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF)October 2018Cover Jordi Matas/UNICEFDesign by Paula LopezAcknowledgementsThis advocacy brief was developed by the Education Sectionof UNICEF’s Headquarters Office, under the leadership andsupervision of Ivelina Borisova (Early Learning Specialist). Specialacknowledgement is due to external consultants, namely MinjuChoi, Deborah Llewellyn, Marilou Hyson and Hsiao-Chen Lin for theirsupport in drafting and editing different iterations of this document.Hsiao-Chen Lin also coordinated overall feedback and productionof this brief. Colleagues from the UNICEF Education HQ andRegional Offices provided valuable feedback.Special thanks go to the ECD section at UNICEF HeadquartersOffice, especially Pia Britto and Ana Nieto, for their partnership andcollaboration on this advocacy brief.We thank Anastasia Warpinski for editing the work, Paula Lopezfor the design, and Hippocampus Learning Centres for sharing andauthorizing the use of their images.UNICEF warmly thanks the LEGO Foundation for supporting this pieceof work, and for its generous contribution and strong partnership.
in support ofLearningthrough playStrengthening learningthrough play in early childhoodeducation programmesUNICEF, 2018
1. IntroductionThe importance of early learning is entrenched in the second target ofSustainable Development Goal 4, which seeks to ensure that, by 2030,“all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, careand pre-primary education so that they are ready for primary education”.Pre-primary education is now considered an essential tool for achievingUniversal Primary Education and the SDGs. Ensuring access to qualitypre-primary education is a key strategy for improving learning and educationoutcomes as well as the efficiency of education systems.1This brief will help pre-primary stakeholders advocate for making play-basedor playful learning a central aspect of expanding and strengthening thepre-primary sub-sector. Grounded in a systems perspective, the brief offersbackground knowledge and examples of strategies that could be adaptedto multiple contexts. The goal is to share practical ideas on how to embedplay and child-centred pedagogy in pre-primary education expansion effortsto ensure the quality and appropriateness of these programmes.The global momentum to expand and integrate early education servicesinto education systems has great potential. But it also carries risks, ifprogramming is not appropriate to meet children’s learning needs andinterests. It can be tempting to extend primary education ideas and methodsof teaching and learning down into the pre-primary level.The brief describes the nature of pre-primary services within the broaderconcept of early learning. We then share definitions of what is meant by playin early childhood, followed by key points of why learning through play buildslifelong learners and supports children’s overall development. We then notethe obstacles that pre-primary advocates may face when making a case forplay-based methods, and we propose a systems perspective in advocatingfor child-centred pedagogy and playful programmes. Noting the uniquecontext of every country, the suggested strategies in this brief provide initialideas that could be adapted to local contexts.One of the great challenges in education planning, therefore, is toincorporate pre-primary education into the formal education sector whileretaining the distinctive elements of quality programming for young children.2A key element to consider is ‘learning through play’, or ‘playful learning’,which is central to quality early childhood pedagogy and education.3In this brief
Strengthening learning through play in early childhood education programmes Learning through play UNICEF/UN0218768/Shennawi3
4 Learning through play Strengthening learning through play in early childhood education programmes2. Play:An essential strategy for learning
6 Learning through play Strengthening learning through play in early childhood education programmesThe early years matterScientific research over the past 30 years has taught usthat the most important period of human developmentis from birth to eight years old.4 During these years, thedevelopment of cognitive skills, emotional well-being,social competence and sound physical and mental healthbuilds a strong foundation for success well into the adultyears. Although learning takes place throughout life, inearly childhood, learning is taking place at a speed thatwill never be equalled.5 The preschool (or pre-primary)education years fall in the middle of the early childhoodperiod and lay the groundwork for success in school andbeyond.6 Although this brief is focused on the pre-primaryyears, we note that learning through play is relevantthroughout the whole early childhood period and beyond. UNICEF/UN0155760/ZammitHow does this brief definepre-primary education?Conception to age 23 to 5 years6 to 8 yearsWith adequate stimulation, a child’sbrain forms neural connections ata pace of at least 1,000 per second.However, recent indications are thatthe speed could be up to 1 millionper second. These connections aretriggered by rich, loving and protectedenvironments, in the context ofresponsive and playful caregivingthat foster bonding and secureattachment, contributing to positivesocioemotional development.Often referred to as the “preschoolperiod”. Children’s language, socialemotional and cognitive skills arerapidly expanding. During this period,the stimulation and learning thatcome from play, reading, singing andinteracting with peers and caringadults at home and in quality earlyeducation settings are essential.Play in the preschool years enableschildren to explore and make senseof the world around them, as well asto use and develop their imaginationand creativity.Often considered the early gradesof primary school. Play-basedlearning continues to be critical,yet it is often neglected in favourof academic-focused educationapproaches. Yet, in this period,active, play-based learningapproaches can transform theeducational experiences ofchildren in the early primarygrades and strengthen learningmotivation and outcomes.or the first 1000 days iconim/Shutterstock.com iconim/Shutterstock.comPre-primary education is focused on supportfor learning available to children in formal ororganized settings and programs. It typicallycovers children three years of age until the startof primary education. Under the InternationalStandard Classification of Education (ISCED)Level 0 Programme categorization, pre-primaryeducation programmes typically focus oninteractions with peers and trained educators andthe development of logical and reasoning skills, aswell as introducing early literacy and mathematicalconcepts and other school readiness skills.The landscape of pre-primary education provisionis complex, with great variety of programs andproviders. Age of entry to pre-primary programmesand how long such programmes last differfrom country to country.
Strengthening learning through play in early childhood education programmes Learning through playPlay, and why it isimportant for learningand development inthe early yearsEducators are re-thinking how to teach young childrento tap their enormous learning potential. Play isone of the most important ways in which youngchildren gain essential knowledge and skills. Forthis reason, play opportunities and environments thatpromote play, exploration and hands-on learning areat the core of effective pre-primary programmes. Thenext section of this brief explains what is meant byplay and play-based learning and gives examples ofthe many ways in which children learn through play.Play takes many formsEveryone knows ‘play’ when they see it – onstreets, in villages, on playgrounds, in classrooms.People from every culture, economic backgroundand community engage in play from their earliestyears. Yet play can be hard to define. Researchersand theorists, however, agree on the keycharacteristics of playful experiences, as seen in thefigure on this page.7 An important aspect of playis children’s agency and control over theexperience. Agency refers to children’s initiative,decision-making and self-choice in play.8Ultimately, play should involve some degree ofagency, enabling children to take on an active role andownership in their experiences, as well as recognizingand trusting children to be capable, autonomous,and agents of their own playful learning journeys.Play is meaningfulChildren play to makesense of the world aroundthem, and to find meaning inan experience by connectingit to something alreadyknown. Through play, childrenexpress and expand theirunderstanding oftheir experiences.Play is joyfulLook at children – or adults –playing, often smiling andlaughing. Of course, playmay have its frustrations andchallenges (Who gets the firstturn? Why can’t I make this blockbuilding stay up?), but the overallfeeling is one of enjoyment,motivation, thrill and pleasure.Play is iterativePlay and learning arenot static. Children playto practice skills, tryout possibilities, revisehypotheses and discovernew challenges, leading todeeper learning.Play is activelyengagingWatch children playing,and you will usually seethat they become deeplyinvolved, often combiningphysical, mental and verbalengagement.Play is sociallyinteractivePlay allows children tocommunicate ideas, tounderstand others throughsocial interaction, pavingthe way to build deeperunderstanding and morepowerful relationships. UNICEF/UN0126148/Gilbertson V7
8 Learning through play Strengthening learning through play in early childhood education programmesChildren learn critical skillsand develop as they playWhen children choose to play, they are not thinking “Now I am going to learn somethingfrom this activity.” Yet their play creates powerful learning opportunities across all areas ofdevelopment. Development and learning are complex and holistic, and yet skills across alldevelopmental domains can be encouraged through play, including motor, cognitive andsocial and emotional skills. Indeed, in playful experiences, children tap a breadth of skillsat any one time. Often this occurs during ‘corner play’ or ‘centre time’ in the context ofearly learning or pre-primary programs. Corner play, when well planned, promotes childdevelopment and learning competencies more effectively than any other pre-primaryactivity. By choosing to play with the things they like to do, children actually develop skills inall areas of development: intellectual, social, emotional and physical.9 UNICEF/UN033705/ArcosLearning through play: More examplesChildren at play learn how to:–Make a plan and follow through [“I want to draw my family. Who will I put inmy picture?”]–Learn from trial and error, using imagination and problem-solving skills[“My tall tower fell down! Maybe my friend can help build it up again.”]–Apply concepts of quantity, science and movement to real life [“I likethese big seeds. How many will I need to cover this part of my picture?”]–Reason in a logical, analytical manner by acting on objects [“There arestill some pieces missing in this puzzle. Which ones might fit?”]–Communicate with classmates and negotiate differences in points of view[“I want to be the mother. Could you be the baby? Or maybe the grandmother?”]–Derive satisfaction from their own accomplishments [“We did it together!”]–Develop creativity and explore aesthetics and artistry [“I wonderwhat will happen if I mix these colours together?]For example, while children are playing, they can try out new social skills (e.g., sharing toys,agreeing on how to work together with materials), and they often take on some challengingcognitive tasks (such as figuring out how to make a building with smaller blocks when thelarger ones are not available). Children are ‘hands-on’ learners. They acquire knowledgethrough playful interaction with objects and people.10 They need a lot of practice with solidobjects to understand abstract concepts. For example, by playing with geometric blocksthey understand the concept that two squares can form a rectangle and two triangles canform a square. From dancing a pattern such as step forward, step back twirl, clap and repeat,they begin to understand the features of patterns that are the foundation for mathematics.Pretend or ‘symbolic’ play (such as playing house or market) is especially beneficial: in suchplay, children express their ideas, thoughts and feelings, learn how to control their emotions,interact with others, resolve conflicts and gain a sense of competence.11Play sets the foundation for the development of critical social and emotional knowledge andskills. Through play, children learn to forge connections with others, and to share, negotiateand resolve conflicts, as well as learn self-advocacy skills. Play also teaches children leadershipas well as group skills. Furthermore, play is a natural tool that children can use to build theirresilience and coping skills, as they learn to navigate relationships and deal with socialchallenges as well as conquer their fears, for example through re-enacting fantasy heroes.12More generally, play satisfies a basic human need to express imagination, curiosity andcreativity, which are key resources in a knowledge-driven world. They help us to cope, to findpleasure, and to use our imaginative and innovative powers. Indeed, the critical skills thatchildren acquire through play in the preschool years form part of the fundamental buildingblocks of future complex “21st-century skills”.
Strengthening learning through play in early childhood education programmes Learning through play UNICEF/UN046701/Haque9
10 Learning through play Strengthening learning through play in early childhood education programmesPlay is an essential strategyfor learning and teachingLearning through playin organized pre-primary settingLearning through play at homeand in the communityLearning through play in theearly grades of primary schoolIn organized pre-primary settings, play experiencesare enhanced when children are provided with ampletime and space to engage freely with the pre-primarysetting/environment. Play can occur in many forms:play with objects; imaginary play; play with peersand adults; solitary play; cooperative play; associativeplay; physical play. Play is considered children’s“work” and is the vehicle through which childrenacquire knowledge and skills, allowing children toengage independently and with others. The role ofteachers and other adults in the room/environmentis to enable and scaffold playful experiences andlearning – this requires thoughtful planning (forexample, setting out materials to pique children’scuriosity) and spontaneous interactions building onnatural curiosities and ideas (for example, followingthe children’s lead in pretend play). Providing childrenwith active and playful hands-on experiences helpfoster and enrich learning.While this brief focuses on the systems approach tointegrate play in all aspects of pre-primary programs andto ensure developmentally appropriate practice, we mustnot forget that young children do not only learn in formalor organized settings. The home environment and thecommunity are where young children spend the larger,if not the largest, part of their early lives, interactingwith parents, siblings, extended family members, andneighbours. These interactions and relationships havea significant influence over how children understandand experience the world around them. Indeed, homeenvironments and the community provide excellentopportunities to promote learning through play fromthe early years through pre-primary and primary years.Primary caregivers, as children’s “first teachers”, arethe biggest supporters of children’s learning, andtherefore have an important role in creating the space forlearning through play. It is therefore essential to supportcaregivers and empower them to take an active role inshaping children’s learning and development, as well asto facilitate playful learning for their children at home andin the community in day-to-day experiences.Learning through play is not only for pre-schoolers.In the primary grades, play opportunities enhancechildren’s mastery of academic concepts and buildmotivation to learn. In fact, two of the most importantthings that play can develop are interest and motivation.Encouraging these in the early grades brings childrenon board in contributing to their own learning. Forexample, playing board games can strengthen mathconcepts while building social competence. Book clubs,dramatizing stories, and other reading games, makeit much more likely for struggling readers to moveahead and not give up. Exploration of a wide variety ofprinted materials and writing tools at a ‘writing corner’can engage reluctant writers and help children learnfrom one another. Further, play fosters creativity andimagination, critical components in enabling us to cope,to find pleasure, and to innovate. Play and opportunitiesto engage actively in learning strengthens student’screative powers. Letting primary grade students engageactively with materials, issues, topics, opens up thespace for inquiry and problem solving13.
Strengthening learning through play in early childhood education programmes Learning through playFigure 1. Continuum of Playful Learningrningl dde-lilddChideFreeplaySource: Adapted from Zosh, Jennifer N., et al. Learning through play: a review of the evidence. LEGO Foundation, 2017.dtrolle/con ivityned r actsig ts foChild-ledGuplayAdulSet rule t designs andecon d/scstr affain oldGamts efor desplayde raintionsult nsttrucAd t coinsSectreDiA central tenet of learning through playis bringing together the different spheresof children’s life – home, school andcommunity and wider world, such thatthere is continuity and connectivity oflearning over time and across differentsituations.14 The adults in these sphereshave a critical role in facilitating thiscontinuity and connectivity of learning,by recognizing, initiating, guiding andscaffolding playful experiences, in supportof children’s agency. The continuum ofplayful learning15 in Figure 1 shows thedifferent levels of child-adult involvementin playful experiences – at one end, freeplay gives children the freedom to play,explore and discover; this progressestowards more guided or structured playwith adult participation. Across thiscontinuum, it is important to ensure thatadults are equipped with the necessaryand appropriate skills to support learningthrough play16 – even in cases of free play,as adults need to recognize the benefitsof free play, and foster it by providing thetime and environment.11
12 Learning through play Strengthening learning through play in early childhood education programmes3. A systems approach to makingplay a core aspect of early childhoodeducation programmes
Strengthening learning through play in early childhood education programmes Learning through play UNICEF/UNI107199/Dormino13
14 Learning through play Strengthening learning through play in early childhood education programmesObstacles to integrating playinto pre-primary systemsParental or caregivermisconceptions about play.Why is learningthrough play notdeeply integratedin many countries’pre-primaryprogrammes?Many people, if asked, expressthe belief that play is frivolousand that play opportunities taketime away from ‘true learning’.These misconceptions are causedby a lack of understanding ofthe benefits of play in children’seducation, with
promote play, exploration and hands-on learning are at the core of effective pre-primary programmes. The next section of this brief explains what is meant by play and play-based learning and gives examples of the many ways in which children learn through play. Play takes many forms Everyone knows ‘play’ when they see it – on