Talking to families about ‘hidden treasures’ of child’s play

Published on Tuesday, 20 July 2021
Last updated on Tuesday, 20 July 2021

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While early educators are not new to the science of play and its critical role in a child’s development, many families don’t have the same depth of understanding.

To help educators close this gap and translate the value of play into meaningful knowledge for families, an Australian early childhood investigation has released a handy Communication Brief, Adding play to the core story of early development.

Years of research have shown the importance of child’s play experiences and what it actually does for their development. This recent Communication Brief builds on an educator’s expertise in this area by offering suggestions on how to talk to families and help them understand the learning and developmental benefits children gain through play.

This brief is part of a series of five and is the outcome of a project by FrameWorks Institute in partnership with Telethon Kids Institute and Minderoo Foundation. The project has investigated perceptions of early childhood in Australia and identified gaps between public thinking and the science of early childhood.

One of their discoveries revealed that while families and the community recognise the importance of play – considering it a natural part of childhood – not all families understand the extent of developmental benefits or the role environments, relationships, and resources have in supporting it.

It is highly probable these findings would also apply within New Zealand’s early learning sector.

Mapping the Gaps Between Expert and Public Understandings of Early Development in Australia was the report that prompted the Communication Brief. It explains the significant gap between expert and public understandings of play, stating (p.57): “For experts play in early childhood can facilitate the development of social skills, critical thinking, mental health, self-regulation, confidence, and self-discovery.” 

Public understanding of play was found to be less multi-faceted: “While the public understands the importance of play in the early years and thinks of it as a key mode of learning and skill-building, they think that play in early childhood—especially before language acquisition – mainly serves to develop motor skills and very basic knowledge of the world.”

Educators can play a vital role in explaining why play is so valuable for early development with an emphasis on play being powerful because it’s fun: children are motivated to have fun and they learn and develop skills as they do so. 

By breaking play into understandable terms, this knowledge can benefit families, and the outcomes for children, by deepening their knowledge on the developmental benefits of play. This is essential as adults not only provide opportunities to play, but also facilitate, scaffold, encourage, and guide certain forms of play that are essential to early development.

Educators can use the Communication Brief to help them translate and promote the science of play. There are six recommendations, and it includes guidance on “What to do” and “Why it works.”

Four recommendations are key to help make the connection between play and developmental outcomes more accessible for families. These are:

1. Lead with a brief version of the core story of health and fairness

Show how supporting early childhood development and learning supports children’s health and wellbeing now and in the future. In conversations position play as vital to development. This section also includes the value of fairness in the accessibility of play opportunities, which can inform communications with a broader audience such as management or in regard to policy. An excerpt from an example to start communications: “When children have what they need to develop well in the early years, they can thrive and be healthy now and throughout their lives.”

2. Pivot to play: Make it clear that supporting play supports early development

Show that play supports children’s early development, instead of presenting it as an end in itself. This helps people see why play matters and makes them more likely to value and prioritise play. Show how play works by focusing on the skills play builds and explaining why these skills matter for healthy development. The intention is to move beyond the assumption that play is something that children will ‘just do’ whatever the circumstances and make it clear that play is a crucial part of development.

3. When talking about different types of play, use concrete, everyday language

Be as concrete as possible in describing different types of play and emphasise exploration and experimentation. Avoid relying on abstract, technical taxonomies. This makes play more tangible and prevents misinterpretations of what play is and how it works.

4. Show that adults can be active participants in play.

Use examples, stories and pictures that show what it looks like for adults such as caregivers and nursery staff to have an active role in play. Make it clear that adult involvement does not mean forcing children to become passive learners. Help people understand that “child-led” play does not mean “no adults allowed”.

Show that children develop and learn better when adults in their lives:

  • Set the scene for play with specific goals in mind.
  • Gently guide play and exploration (for example, by asking questions, weaving in definitions and ideas and connecting play with prior experiences).

The recommendations also address issues of equity and helps prompt the conversation on how unequal access to play leads to unequal development outcomes for children. This helps people connect inequalities in play opportunities to broader inequalities in children’s development. It also helps them see that intentional support is required to address this problem.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) has also written an article on Talking with Parents about Play and Learning, and includes these suggestions for communicating the importance of play to families:

  1. Use words that will help parents understand play, learning, and development.
  2. Describe different types of play to expand families’ understanding of what play is.
  3. Offer opportunities to analyse the connections between play, learning, and development.
  4. Provide time for parents to observe play, engage in play, and reflect on learning and development.
  5. Post images of children playing and learning—both indoors and out. Label them with information about what the children are learning.
  6. Use communication channels to reinforce the connections between centre activities and learning.
  7. Become more comfortable talking about play and learning. Practice with a colleague.
  8. Explain key play materials in your preschool setting and how to use them at home.
  9. Provide books, articles, and other resources during enrolment, plus share more at parent meetings

References and further reading

The Sector: How can we better communicate the importance of supporting children’s play?

Words that Work: A Core Story of Child Development  – 5a Framing Play (free online course)

Scholastic: Policies and Practices – Sharing the Power of Play With Parents

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