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Learning through play

Play is a valued process for children’s learning, thinking, imagination, story making and communication. The play of young children includes many different types including sensory, explorative, physical, creative, symbolic, projective, role, and dramatic play and games with rules. All are important aspects of children’s learning and development.

Play provides children with opportunities to express a sense of agency and demonstrate their competence and be leaders in their own learning. Play can provide children with a sense of belonging and being and supports the development of children’s individual and social identity. Children use play to participate in their culture, to develop the literacy of their culture, to order the events in their lives and to share those events with others. Through play, children develop an understanding of their social worlds. They learn to trust, form attachments, share, negotiate, take turns and resolve conflict. Since play varies from individual to individual, family to family and across cultural groups, play enables children to experience and to begin to understand difference and diversity.

Play for young children begins with reflexive action and exploration of their immediate world using their senses. Through the sensory and embodiment play of babies, children’s development of body, self, their risk taking and their confidence to explore and make choices is strengthened. Play develops into planned and experimental exploring, problem solving, consolidating and practising, imagining and creating. As children develop the capacity to pretend, they develop their own worlds using objects to take on the roles and relationships they wish to explore. Symbolic play (make believe, or pretend play where familiar activities may be performed even in the absence of materials or social context—for example when a child mimes talking on a phone) is crucial in supporting children’s developing literacy. Through symbolic play children create a fictional world and tell their stories. Social play and dramatic play provide a space where friendship groups are formed, power relationships negotiated, and challenging life experiences are explored.

Play provides children with opportunities to be supported to learn to make play safe, fair, just and equitable for all participants. Rich, purposeful play contributes to the development of literacy through:

• oral language—using language to script the play, negotiate, describe imaginary props or act out different roles

• metalinguistic development—naming and renaming objects

• understanding of authentic purposes of reading and writing

• moving children into their‘zones of proximal development’ where they use increasingly complicated language (Bodrova, 2007).

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