Learning: Intimately Engaging Young Minds

The evidence is quite clear that play equals learning across developmental domains. Children’s learning occurs in many places besides the classroom; even there, it can be best facilitated by playful approaches that draw upon individual interests and the creative, adaptive, and problem-solving functions of the brain. 

Learning, memory, concentration, and mood all have a significant bearing on a student’s academic performance, and there is increasing evidence that physical activity enhances each. Since children and adolescents engage in physical activity primarily through physically strenuous play, an evaluation of the relation between physical activity, cognition, and academic performance helps us better appreciate the role of play in healthy child development. Play significantly affects the development of the whole child.

"Play significantly affects the development of the whole child." 

Outdoor play contributes to children’s intellectual, social, emotional, and physical learning in very unique and meaningful ways. By using a variety of materials and loose parts (sand, water, mud), negotiating a range of challenges (climbing, building, running), and interacting in an array of situations (rehearsing, problem solving, evaluating communicating {verbal/non-verbal}), children develop knowledge, skills, and dispositions in establishing relationships with the environment and its people. 

The outdoors provides a natural classroom in which play and learning can be authentic, experiential, and relevant. For example, physics, botany, and geography are just a few areas of possible inquiry. Social sciences and humanities such as English and history can also use the natural environment as an integrating context that provides opportunities for interdisciplinary, collaborative, and hands-on learning.

Effective “players” learn to communicate and assume the perspective of others.  Socially, children learn to lead, care, and trust; children form friendships. Freed from direct instructional activities, outdoor play allows children opportunities to develop strengths and experience successes otherwise not possible in traditional indoor settings. 

Outdoor play contributes to children’s intellectual, social, emotional, and physical learning in ways not possible through direct instruction. The first step is to acknowledge play in the outdoors as a dynamic, relevant, and developmentally appropriate resource for learning and not merely a time scheduled for leisure when the real work of the day is completed. Educational practices for the new age must reflect a “play, development and learning” model. 

Play is an important vehicle for children’s social, emotional, and cognitive development, as well as a reflection of their development. Equipped with the knowledge of the value of play for learning, we can be empowered to advocate for play and effectively communicate how it is integral to children’s overall development. 

This article was written by our scholar partner, Kathleen Burriss, Ed.D., Professor Emeritus, Colelge of Education, Middle Tennessee State University. Sources from this article can be found in Words on Play: A treatise on its value by leading play scholars.

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