What is a Suitable Education?
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How We Learn

Play is essential to children’s development, health and well being – knowledge from 40 studies

‘Play in children’s development, health and well being’ by Professor Jeffrey Goldstein of Utrecht University on how children learn and the importance of play to their development, learning and well being is essential reading

“Play is so critically important to all children in the development of their physical, social, mental, emotional and creative skills that society should seek every opportunity to support it and create an environment that fosters it.”

The Welsh Assembly Government’s 2002 Play Policy

We know about the importance of play to human evolution and development from studies in biology, psychology and neuroscience, with many recent developments. True play – that which is freely chosen, intrinsically motivated (not done for any external reward or outcome) and personally directed – has been shown through abundant research to be essential if humans are to reach their full potential. Such play nurtures overall development, increases attention span, efficiency of thinking and problem solving and massively boosts creativity, health and happiness.

The growing child learns nearly everything through play, developing capabilities for spontaneity, wonder, creativity, imagination, and trust. Play also preserves and strengthens the natural love of learning which in turn supports the learning process.

‘Children at play begin to learn essential maths skills such as counting, equality, addition and subtraction, estimation, planning, patterns, classification, volume and area, and measurement. Children’s informal understanding provides a foundation on which formal mathematics can be built’


Yet so often play and learning are treated as though they are opposite and incompatible. Formal learning has replaced free play and art and music are cut in favour of yet more focus on grammar and maths. The wealth of research at our disposal tells us that this is not true, play and academic learning are not incompatible. Far from it. Research shows that all types of play, from dress up to board games and every aspect of free play develops language, mathematics, early literacy and social skills in children from all backgrounds. The most effective support adults can give is to provide the materials and to be involved by asking questions and interacting.

Furthermore, play is the solution to many of the problems which afflict our children, both physical and mental. Sufficient free play could solve the growing problem of obesity, poor physical health as well as ADHD and depression. Play is a mood enhancer, builds self-esteem and interpersonal relationships. ADHD, the fastest-growing behavioural problem for children and young people, estimated to affect 8% of school-age children has been shown to be greatly reduced through two hours of active play a day.

The case for play is clear. We just need to act on it.

Play in children’s development, health and well being. Literature review by Jeffrey Goldstein
(Toy Industries of Europe, Feb 2012 )

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