Children tell us 'we love to play'

We asked parents to ask their children about their experience of early learning and we asked children directly in a series of ten focus groups with children aged three to five.

In all the heated debate about early childhood education and care, we rarely ask children what they think and want from their experiences.

The Early Learning Everyone Benefits campaign invited parents of children under the age of five to ask their children how they feel about going to their early learning service – including playgroup, long day care, family day care, kindergarten or pre-school.

More than 300 families have responded so far. They report that 73 percent of the children said they usually feel happy or excited to attend early learning. Some children feel just OK or even sad, scared or nervous and may need extra support from parents and educators.

In answer to ‘What do you like to do best?’ 59 percent of children said they like to play in a variety of ways.

When we asked children to name all the things they love to do, playing also featured prominently:

  • Playing outside (89%)
  • Reading or hearing stories (71%)
  • Playing games (69%)
  • Singing or music (66%)
  • Learning about something new (55%)
  • Dressing up and pretending (54%)

When we asked what they like to do best at home with parents or carers, again playing together, with or without toys and going to playgrounds together were the two top responses – more than 80 percent. The next most popular was reading bedtime stories 67 percent.

The campaign also conducted qualitative research through a series of ten focus groups in Canberra, Sydney, Wollongong and Melbourne. These were conducted in early learning centres with permission of parents and using a range of activities, including drawing and singing to help the children communicate their responses.

Again, all types of play featured strongly in the children’s responses and in their drawings about what they enjoy doing and how they like to learn:

They said they like to play outside and inside —in their drawings and comments they talked and showed they love to play sport, climb and play on outside equipment, play in sand pits, play games and play make-believe.

We can see rich learning experiences in the examples children gave of how they play:

  • 'Making shapes, actually, I was making dinosaur shadows…. You get some light or a torch and shine it on the dinosaur and then you can see the dinosaur shadow.’
  • 'Making ice-cream in the outdoor shop’ 
  • 'I play trains. My favourite way to travel is trains’

Early childhood educators know that play-based pedagogy is the most effective way for young children to learn. The feedback from children confirms the importance of early learning settings having large outdoor spaces and adequate resources to provide rich learning experiences – encompassing language, literacy, music, art, science, maths, engineering and more.

Campaign spokesperson, Early Childhood Australia CEO Samantha Page says:

‘With the guidance of skilled educators, an activity like shining a light through a dinosaur shape teaches a child about the physics of how light and shadow work. When a child says “I play trains” and loves to build train tracks, they are supporting a child to develop spatial awareness and explore the basic concepts of engineering and momentum.’

‘When a child describes ‘making ice-cream in the outdoor shop’ they are learning to collaborate and negotiate with other children. Pretending to be mermaids or a train driver exercises children’s imagination; their use of descriptive language, their executive functioning, and even emotional regulation.’

Australia’s Early Years Learning Framework advises:

Play provides opportunities for children to learn as they discover, create, improvise and imagine. When children play with other children they create social groups, test out ideas, challenge each other’s thinking and build new understandings. Play provides a supportive environment where children can ask questions, solve problems and engage in critical thinking.

Under the early childhood education National Quality Standards, educators are expected to, “respond to children’s ideas and play and use intentional teaching to scaffold and extend each child’s learning.” And create a learning environment that is, “inclusive, promote competence, independent exploration and learning through play.”

‘It’s more important for children to feel deeply engaged in their play-based learning activities, much more important than whether they are neat and clean at the end of their day,' said Ms Page.

‘All children learn through play and our responses to their play. For parents and anyone who spends time with young children, it’s great to be reminded that ‘play is the business of childhood’, said Ms Page.

Tips for parents on how to support children to play:

  • The best thing we can do when we talk to children is to ask them about what they played today - it’ s what they will most enjoy telling you about.
  • Embrace the play spaces offered at home and in the community, let kids decide where to play…help them negotiate play spaces to enjoy ensuring their own and others safety and wellbeing
  • Incorporate play into daily routines, play pretend with them, let children lead with their imaginations
  • Play builds relationships, initiate it and join in – help your children do the same
  • Support fair decision making in your children’s play
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