I watch my daughter (aged 3) sitting quietly, playing with her small figures and dolls. She is building communities amongst them. They are kind and co-operative with each other. She is building her own version of a good society and reflects the cultural practices she sees around her. She also thrills in playing superheroes and defending us all from ‘bad guys’. She runs and yells and explores the feelings of fear, excitement, anticipation and victory through imaginative play.
My son (aged 6) constructs more elaborate games with friends that enable them to simulate scary or challenging environments. I watch him with his friends playing amongst trees and bushes on a slippery bank. It is difficult for them to climb and they frequently lose each other amongst the growth. They play a game that involves getting each other to the top of the bank. They develop teamwork skills helping each other in difficult parts, they shout instructions to each other and they escalate a sense of danger amongst themselves that makes this task thrilling and adventurous. I see in the childrens faces the weight of this endeavour. They experience peril and danger and solve problems together to overcome challenges. They glow with the pride of their achievement as they reach their goal.
As I type my children are playing in our communal garden, with other children from our block of flats. They are creating a restaurant. They are developing their physical skills as they rearrange the space, they are learning about edible foods as they forage from our herb and vegetable beds. They are learning to work together and delegate roles to each other. They are developing communication skills as they discuss how best to do things and learning about relationships with friends. They are playing out an adult situation but entirely under their control.
Play offers children the chance to ‘try out’ adult situations, to transform the world about them into a more understandable form. I believe that most learning happens through play for both younger and older children. I believe that most learning happens through play for all of us.