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A Time to Play

Beverley Paine, 2009

For most parents, children's play is considered to be merely diversion or entertainment. Kids do seem to like it, after all, and their pleasure in devoting hours to play, make-believe, and following their imaginations is usually obvious.

But to think that play matters only in so far as it brings pleasure is to miss the forest for the trees. Play is ultimately about learning. It has its roots in the delights found in the cabinet under the kitchen counter, or in the back garden, or in the desk drawer. Kids explore the world with all their senses when they play. They investigate, hypothesise, imagine, problem solve, reflect and evaluate - and polish these skills all in the name of fun!

All play is educational play , just as all television is educational television. We may not be happy about the curriculum, but the learning happens just the same. Good stuff, bad stuff, stupid stuff: it all gets played and learned.

Play is an effective learning medium. Record keeping has many advantages but the one I value the most is the boost to my confidence that home education is a viable alternative to school. I am glad I recorded many aspects of my children's lives, not just their academic or social progress. Play was a vital part of our children's education, as this except from `a day in our life' (from my book Learning in the Absence of Education) shows:

"The boys have been working on a map of an imaginary country. This map is twelve A4 pages joined together, and they have half each. They are putting the final touches on the map, which has taken about twenty hours to draw over nearly a week. Roger climbs up on a chair to blue tack it to the living room wall. The map is complex, with medieval villages, swamps, mountains, forests, islands, reefs, roads, quarries. Their mum remarks that it looks a lot like the map in Alan Garner's Weirdstone of Brisingingham series. They agree, and some discussion about books with maps in them ensues.

The weather is nice outside so the boys disappear. Later their mum is invited to check out the village they have built into the side of a cutting down on the property. Little caves are houses for imaginary people, roads and steps lead to small huts made from carefully broken twigs constructed into realistic buildings. The village sprawls over
two square metres. It took almost two hours to complete, raised from the ruins of the village built last year. The building process included an imaginary game, with several characters, and a break to play on the nearby rope swing."

How many of us built models of towns at school, or drew maps of imaginary islands or countries, at school as part of our geography or history studies, either at primary or high school? I remember doing both, several times over the years. Teachers offered such activities, not only to break the monotony of learning from books, but also because working with our hands is a powerful conduit to learning, understanding and memory.

Children do amazing things while playing, and if we look closely we can see a huge range of different skills and knowledge they apply, in ever increasing levels of difficulty, as they grow. Often what children do naturally in play is no different from the carefully
contrived activities devised by teachers. Recognising this in the homeschool can help to create impressive `short cuts' in the curriculum and it's one of the reasons home education is so successful.

I remember those days when my children played all day, seemingly every day, with their LEGO - before that it was dolls, cars and teddies!

It's right and appropriate that our children look after their health and hygiene. It's right and appropriate that we help them create balance in their lives. They need to run, jump, skip, hop, climb, sing and dance as well as play with their dolls! And they need some fresh air too, so perhaps the dolls need to go on a picnic under the bush or tree at the back of the garden, perhaps a safari might be in order? Do the dolls need a car, maybe a four wheel drive... can the girls make one out of a cereal box... what to use for wheels... do they need a trailer for all their gear? They will need camping gear for a safari... a tent, food... what else?

And so the game goes. This is the role we parents can play in our children's playful life. Play is a great way to introduce or extend established understanding and concepts. By getting involved in their play we extend their learning (education) in a very natural way. It's not contrived like school lessons.

If you still worry about your children playing all day, log the number of hours they actually really spend playing any and all games. Do this for one day or a week, but do it in a scientific manner: be as accurate as possible. It's a bit like keeping a food diary when you are on a diet; very difficult and you're bound to forget to log in some play hours, etc. But by the end of the week you'll realise just how much time your children do things other than play - like get dressed, eat, help you shop, help with the chores, watch television or play board or card games, muck about in the garden, squabble, etc.

In all honestly I believe my children had a LEGO play curriculum going for several years - they have an enormous LEGO collection to prove it. I played with them for hours on end some days (it really seemed like it, but the longest stint would have been five hours). Playing all day didn't hurt my children one bit. They are technically minded, practical people who can build and repair almost anything they set their mind to... They also played dolls (Sylvanean Families and Barbie dolls) for days at a time: all three are very caring adults, loyal to their friends. There is a lot of learning embedded in playing with toys.

The dictionary defines the verb play as "to engage in a game, to take recreation, amusement, fun, jest". A natural element of play is joy, an emotion we experience 'in this moment'. If we aren't enjoying what we are doing then we aren't really playing.

As we grow into adulthood we learn to separate play and work, although I can see no reason why this should be so. Young children see no clear definition and, until they are taught differently, seem to have an innate ability to enjoy most tasks, often imbuing them with a sense of playfulness that can, at times, appear amusing to parents and frustrating at others!

It is up to us to try and recapture the spontaneity of play in our lives. We need to impress how precious a playful attitude to life on our children. This means far more than turning everyday tasks into play in the hope that our will children enjoy them. When my children were young I came across the saying 'play is child's work' and saw that many teachers, game and toy companies took control over this and made play a different form of work, something you have to do to achieve a goal. Play doesn't need a goal, other than play, that is!

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Together with the support of my family, my aim is to help parents educate their children in stress-free, nurturing environments. In addition to building and maintaing this website, I continue to create and manage local and national home educating networks, help to organise conferences and camps, as well as write for, edit and produce newsletters, resource directories and magazines. I am an active support of national, state, regional and local home education groups.

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Welcome to the
World of Home Education
and Learning without School!

We began educating our three children in 1985, when our eldest was aged five years. In truth, we had helped them learn what they need to learn as they grew and explored and discovered this amazing world since the moment they were born. I am a passionate advocate of allowing children to learn unhindered by unnecessary stress and competition, meeting developmental needs in ways that suit their individual learning styles and preferences. Ours was a homeschooling, unschooling and natural learning family! There are hundreds of articles on this site to help you build confidence as a home educating family. I hope that your home educating adventure is as satisfying as ours was!

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