The importance of play and creativity in a primary setting

Posted on 13th Oct 2023 in School News, Which London School?

Philippa Ireton on why creative play is essential to child development and how Dallington School embraces a play-based learning approach.

“Creative people are curious, flexible, persistent, and independent with a tremendous spirit of adventure and a love of play.” – Henri Matisse

In a world of highly competitive schooling, where tests and homework are the norm, it is worth remembering these words of Henri Matisse.

So often creativity and play get squeezed out of the equation when schools are against the clock, preparing their young charges for the next stage of schooling. ‘Getting ready to sit down and learn’ is one of those phrases still heard in schools – somehow managing to suck all the potential joy out of learning. It is sometimes forgotten how important play is to children’s natural development.

We know fundamentally that play is essential to healthy brain development, as well as improving the physical, social, and emotional wellbeing of children and young people. Through play, children learn about the world and themselves, build self-confidence, and learn skills that they can use in tackling schoolwork.

Frequent daily play can help reduce anxiety, stress, and irritability, as well as helping to boost sheer joy and self-esteem. We also know that play improves literacy; children are born with the ability to learn language, and from birth, language and literacy skills are built through play and interactions. Singing and learning poems help children develop listening skills and learn about the sounds in words.

At Dallington School we know how important it is to allow time for unstructured play – not just in the Early Years but also as children progress through school. They need time to direct their own activities, without being led by an adult. Many children have their lives filled with after school activities, violin lessons, extra maths, and have no time to be bored, and therefore have no time for creative play, nor the ability to create their own play. The United Nations lists play as one of the basic rights of every child.

Imagine the scene: a group of year 3 children have been discussing weather patterns as part of a geography lesson. It stemmed from their cross curricular topic last term about the Stone Age. Wondering how Stone Age people managed to live with adverse weather, and how they might have predicted when it was going to be really wet, or very cold, the discussion turned to how the children themselves might replicate the lives of Stone Age people. They decided they needed to take their investigation outside to the local park, and thus began an outdoor exploration of den building, weather watching and recording, and creating a receptacle to catch the rain.

Another chance discussion in year 2 about the effect plastic has on the health of our seas has led to an extraordinary learning journey, with children campaigning for the replacement of single-use cups in the school, writing heart-felt letters to the council, creating awareness posters and leading a whole school assembly about the issue. This is what play-based education can look like, led by children’s curiosity and where the educator is in turn led. The children brought together all sorts of different skills, presentation, art, writing; all inspired by a discussion that started with one question.

In most schools these opportunities become ever-decreasing once children reach the age of five. Perceived expectations of progress and whole-class teaching take the place of child-led endeavour. It takes skilled staff to recognise in the moment those fascinations that excite children, and to follow their lead.

This is what a regular day at Dallington School can look like. We believe that it is important to ensure that every day is exciting and fun, and to allow children’s natural learning to take off in different directions. Allowing a certain fluidity in the timetable enables the teacher to give children this wonderful gift of time and freedom. An enquiry topic-based curriculum is an ideal way to help children become the architects of their own learning; the very cross curricular nature brings together so many different lines of enquiry and throws up new questions and interests. Children have the time to work through the process of planning, problem solving, and discussing how to present their work. Home learning projects, usually model-making, are kept out on display so that children can return to them at different times during the school day, and can explain to each other (and visiting adults) the details of what they have created.

This type of approach is not necessarily easy, it takes a lot of planning time to ensure that this provision is maintained, but we have shown that learning through play can be one of the most effective ways to do this and is the best possible way for children to embrace their learning and take ownership of it. The most important thing we educators can teach our children is ‘how to be a learner’. It gives children the all-important transferable skills they need to continue to be successful learners in the future.

Finally, let us all allow children to enjoy their childhood!

This article first appeared in the 2023/24 edition of Which London School? & the South-East, which you can read in full below: