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Wednesday 10th, Jun 2020 (Published on Wednesday 29th, Apr 2020)

The importance of play in schools

Is play key to developing creativity and critical thinking?

In this article, I discuss the importance of play within the home and educational settings. Sadly playtime seems to be seen as unimportant in regards to the more mainstream teaching methods once children leave the foundation stage. As a forest school leader play is a fundamental right that sadly seems to have been eroded in many schools, particularly in the USA where 'recess' has been shortened, mostly to enable more time in the classroom. 

Hopefully, as we place more emphasis on good mental health the importance of play within the context of education will return. 

Imagintive play

The key ways that children learn are predominantly through play and exploring the world around them. From the moment of birth, your child’s brain is working hard. By 12 weeks, it’s already grown millions of neurons, the building blocks of the brain. 


A newborn weighs around five per cent of his adult weight, but the brain is already 25 per cent of its final size. By the time this baby reaches just three years, the brain has already grown to 80 per cent of its adult size. In short, children are born ready to learn and this is mostly done through observations within the playtime itself.


This notion was first explored by Vygotsky, a psychologist who specialises in child development. He stated that “in play, the child operates at their highest level beyond his average age, above his daily behaviour; in play, it is as though he were a head taller than himself.”


Playtime gives children the opportunity to try out new ideas, take risks, make mistakes and challenge themselves. Children are most willing to give anything a go just in order to discover the world around them. Children become more confident with play because it is something they are usually in full control of. 


Play will help them to come to terms with their own fears, dangers, and the unpredictability of the world around them, particularly within the minefield of human relationships. Think of all those tantrums and fall outs you had as a child. As adults, we can support and facilitate play, but we must not take away their overall control and direction of it. If we do, it is no longer the child’s agenda and they are therefore less likely to learn and to continue to be engaged in the same way. Educational experiences need to support both the intellectual and emotional growth of the individual.


The second characteristic of learning is being mentally active. It involves children being deeply involved and concentrating. This is self-motivating to children and allows them to get satisfaction for completing a task on their own merit. This will, in turn, lead to a boost in self-esteem and I’m sure we can all appreciate the good that feeling proud of yourself brings. This cycle of active learning is more likely to continue when the child is actively involved in the creation of their own learning environment. 


The outdoor and forest school area is the perfect environment for this to take place. It is mostly safe, self-adapting through time and seasons and you don’t have to worry about tidying up at the end. Children thrive outdoors and their physical and mental health are both improved.


Thirdly, we must consider the child’s motivation, which is the key to concentration, which in turn is linked to involvement. A lot to consider, however, the research of Ferre Laevers has shown that when children are deeply involved in what they are doing, it is far more likely that deep-level learning is taking place. And, ‘if deep-level learning is taking place, a person is operating at the limits of their “zone of proximal development.” The times when children choose what they want to play with, follow their natural curiosity and train of thought then deep involvement is likely to happen.  


We all complain about how children switch from one trend to another; however, we should consider the importance of teaching persistence. It’s all about being motivated to master something new. Children will try new ways to solve any problem when given the time and space to do so. Persistence can be nurtured with praise. Praise is the key to helping children to identify their own success and this will help them to bounce back from the problems they face along the way.


The emphasis, however; should be firmly placed on the way that children achieve their own personal goals. This will mean that the child is fully immersed in the task and the motivation is intrinsic. When the motivation is externally derived (such as teacher/parent pressure) the reward is less personal and there is much less motivation for learning to continue. Learning experiences need to offer both challenges and support.


Finally, I would like to talk about creativity and divergent thinking. Our world is facing a lot of challenges, with even more coming in the future. We need robust leaders and citizens who question things that are presented as “fact” or even “fake news” and then ask critical and thoughtful questions. We need people who think carefully about how they make decisions that impact on both their own and other people’s lives. 

In short, this world is in desperate need of strong critical thinkers and as adults, we should encourage this.


Creativity and critical thinking are fundamental processes in making sense of experiences and the world around us and developing deep thinking. Creativity in this sense is about thinking flexibly and developing imagination. Critical thinking allows us to organise our thoughts, come up with new strategies and ideas and solve complex problems. It also helps us to reflect, which in turn helps us to learn deeply.


Children need to have the ability to create original ideas; exploring these creatively within the safety of play.  We should challenge children to come up with their own ideas and put them into practice. Being inventive in play allows them the freedom to find new problems as they seek to challenge and explore ways of solving these queries for themselves. Development often emerges from unexpected or new experiences (in which a person needs supported time to reflect and process).


In conclusion: Children constantly make links between new experiences and what they have already learnt in their own homes or in the classroom. Children ‘connect the dots’ through play, later they will start to communicate these links verbally and hopefully as divergent thinkers. Play is not just a ‘break from learning’ but is the fundamental basis of it.