In a recent webinar on how to encourage children to lead their own learning, we were joined by Tom Hobson, also known as Teacher Tom from Teacher Tom’s World! Tom discussed effective play-based learning in early childhood education and how we can encourage children to be leaders in their own learning. Tom also shared strategies and real-life examples of the benefits of play-based learning and how to create play-based learning experiences in your own classroom.
Think of play as children learning at full capacity: It’s self-directed (what children do when no one is telling them what to do) and it’s how children learn to be self-motivated and work well with others. This is why children need to be given the opportunity to play without interference.
If you need another reason, play is also a natural way to learn STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) skills.
In order to provide the children in our care with an authentic childhood, we need to honor their need for play and learning through play-based activities. Authentic play means there is no direct instruction from the educator. Instead, we let children engage with the learning environment based on their own interests. Effective play-based learning means we give children the space to ask and answer their own questions.
As educators, we need to learn how to foster, guide and support children in their learning journey without taking control of their play. Through play-based learning, we can enable children to be curious, self-motivated, and active agents in their own lives.
Engaging in risky play
It is impossible to talk about play without talking about risk. Children need risk for their prefrontal cortex to develop properly and they need to be able to play for all of the reasons listed above.
Risk is absolutely essential for children to learn how to keep themselves safe and for that reason, it can’t be artificial. Pretend risk and real risk are very different, and our brains treat them differently.
There is also a difference between risks and hazards. An example of a hazard would be shards of broken glass on the playground: something that presents a completely unacceptable danger to the children. We need to actively avoid hazards. Risk, however, is something a child chooses for themselves. They make the decision that they want to try it.
Instead of saying, “Be careful!” As educators, we should say, “I am here to help you if you get hurt”. This allows children to properly assess risk and decide when they are comfortable engaging in it.
Risk is part of learning a new skill. For example, no matter your age, anyone who uses a hammer for the first time might hit their thumb. That is a risk that you need to take in order to be able to develop the skill of hammering.
If all you have is a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail.”Maslow
Every tool that a child learns how to use, opens up the world a little bit more for them. This broadening of their horizons involves risk. Children need to learn how to engage with risk to continue growing and developing.
Playing with risky toys
Simply put, children do not need toys for risky play. Or play in any sense for that matter. When we watch children at play, they’re almost always far more interested in the real world than in toys. For example, a real vacuum is much more engaging than a toy one. It is also a lot riskier! Allowing children to explore their physical environment in a tangible way, instead of through toys, allows them to properly learn where risks take place and how to navigate them.
Play and failure
Play is how children learn about the connection between failure, perseverance, and success. When children are left to play, they also spend a great deal of time failing. In fact, they spend a lot more time failing than they do succeeding.
I’ve never seen anybody work harder than a child at play”Teacher Tom
Hard work is built into play. When children have the autonomy to teach themselves to be in charge of their own learning, we see that success becomes just another step in the process. It is not something to strive toward, it’s only a marker that now they are done with this challenge and ready to go tackle something else.
As we put children in charge of their own learning, it’s important that we step back and give them a chance to fail, then succeed, then fail, over and over again.