Politicans urged to value children's play

This children’s week we’re encouraging our politicians to dig deep and bring out their inner child, no tantrums like what we see in question time. No, we’re encouraging them to bring out the inner child who remembers how much they loved to play

This children’s week we’re encouraging our politicians to dig deep and bring out their inner child, no tantrums like what we see in question time. No, we’re encouraging them to bring out the inner child who remembers how much they loved to play.
With the growing concern around Australia’s sliding academic performance, you’d think that central to children’s learning is NAPLAN, NAPLAN, NAPLAN, along with a national standardised year one reading, writing and maths test thrown in for good measure. 
 Jo Briskey with Margot (7months) and Gweny (4)

However, as leading academics and early learning advocates continue to shout from the rooftops, the best thing our politicians and policymakers can do to help improve children’s learning and academic performance is to focus on access to quality early learning and specifically the benefits of play.
Alas, we, the adults, have forgotten the importance and value of play and its central role in our child’s education and development. In an adult world, play is just something kids do for fun or when they want to best annoy their parents. 
Yet, not only is play fun, it’s also integral to a child’s cognitive, social, emotional and physical development.
Through play children create, explore, engage and interact with the world, learning how the world works and how they fit in.
Play during those first few years of life is how children master the skills necessary to succeed in life. 
And this is where our early learning centres and the first years of primary school take centre stage.
Under the guiding hand of skilled educators’ children are learning and they’re learning through play. 
And parents are seeing this and revelling in just how wonderful it is to find out what new thing their child has learnt that day. 
In a national survey of over 3000 parents, developed by Early Childhood Australia and The Parenthood, as part of the Early Learning Everyone Benefits campaign, 96 percent agreed or strongly agreed that their child had had a positive experience and developed skills from their participation in early childhood education and care.
More than 90 percent of parents said they’d seen improved social skills, confidence and emotional capacity as a result of their child attending early learning, as well as improvements in thinking, speaking and listening skills, and their willingness to contribute and participate.
And yet the political discussion around early learning is so often consumed by the issue of cost and scarce accessibility. Which is of course, understandable given the incredible cost and the unsustainable burden this is placing on family budgets.
We’re also very focused on what parent’s get out of early learning and care, expressly how it enables them to work and in particular, how it enables more women to return to work (this is especially relevant given our society remains hung up on women taking on the bulk of childcare responsibilities.) 
There is absolutely no doubt that working parents being able to access affordable early learning and care is essential to our nation’s productivity and to our economy. If centres were to close Australia would literally stop.
Yet the benefits of early learning go well beyond helping working parents work.
And when we ask parents about what motivates them most when choosing a centre for their child, cost and access come in at a close second to the type of experience their kids will have. What will they learn, how will they develop and will they be happy, are the driving questions parents have when looking for early education and care for their child.
But let’s stop talking about what adult’s get out of early learning - what do the kids have to say?
The Everyone Benefits campaign recently did just that, they invited parents to sit down and ask their kids what they think about their playgroup, long day care, family day care, kindy or pre-school.
Unsurprisingly the overwhelming response to what kids loved most was play. Playing outside, getting dirty, playing inside, dressing up, pretend play, playing games, singing, dancing.
It seems like ‘well of course!’ but it’s important we remind ourselves, especially as parents, what the world looks like from our child’s eyes. What is most important to them, what is it that they’re experiencing and how are they learning.
When we remind ourselves that central to our child’s life is play it becomes clear play isn’t just for fun – it’s our child’s entire world.
Let’s stop using the term childcare. The benefits of early learning and care (not childcare) to mum, to dad, to the kids together with the broader community isn’t limited to children being cared for so mum and dad can work. 
It’s time we shift the political debate around early learning and care from being a cost to the government to a leading investment, from a workplace necessity to the start of a child’s educational journey and from babysitting to learning through play.
It’s time for all of us to go back to play school!

Jo Briskey is the CEO of Australia’s largest campaigning and advocacy organisation for parents – The Parenthood.
She is also trained in Educational and Developmental Psychology.