The importance of play in developing 21st century skills

You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than a year of conversation. Plato

I retain vivid memories of playing outside either by myself or with a group of friends. We had our favourite games and we rode our scooters and bicycles freely up and down my street. Our imaginations turned the fern house of a neighbor into a jungle and there were always opportunities for role play.

Most afternoons after school included homework, Speech and Drama practice, and time for unstructured play with my neighborhood friends. The lives of our children today have become more complex but researchers and medical practitioners agree that play remains fundamental to child development. Children learn and develop a breadth of skills through play.

However, researchers note a decline in children’s freedoms over the past sixty years, with longer days attending school, increased extracurricular activities, and heightened parental concerns about the external urban environment. There is a real tension in balancing the benefits of the learning one gains at school and through participation in extracurricular activities and the learning one gains from unstructured play.

The importance of play in developing 21st century skills

There is an important link between play and skills such as problem solving, collaboration and creativity which are necessary in building career and life skills. Unstructured play appears to be of particular value, where children can creatively explore their environment, develop their language skills, learn how to negotiate through interactions with other children and regulate their own emotions.

Research by the Gonski Institute for Education in New South Wales highlights the numerous benefits of play which include improved cognitive development, higher order thinking abilities, social and emotional wellbeing and physical health. They cite 2019 research notes that children learn how to socialize and get along with others by learning rules and expectations of what is expected of them during play-based learning.

I believe that our Early Learning and Kindergarten children have the benefit of a balanced program which encourages structured activities and play, alongside unstructured play. I am fortunate to hear the observations from Lauriston’s Director of Kindergarten, Fiona Ireland, about unstructured play both in the Kindergarten and Bush Kindergarten. At Bush Kindergarten, the imagination of the children takes full flight as they use the natural objects around them to make up games or to challenge themselves as they climb trees or forge the stream. Within the daily program of the Lauriston Kindergarten, the children have access to blocks for making fortifications and the sandpit. The dry rock bed is a wonderful space for exploration and imaginary games.

Unstructured play to develop 21st century skills

While I understand that play is fundamental to the development of the child, I would suggest that some of the more structured activities we provide for our older students at Lauriston which are external to the academic program, are also beneficial for the ongoing development of social and emotional skills, creativity, problem solving and effective communication.

Our Junior and Senior School camps which are part of our school year, include structured and unstructured activities. Our Year 8 students are about to embark on an outdoor skills camp which will have a blend of structured learning activities along with opportunities to practice with peers. Our Year 2 Sleepover is enormous fun and includes many structured and unstructured activities which help the children develop their social and emotional skills and self-regulation.

Howqua is a place of powerful social and emotional learning. This is where the girls learn about themselves and their relationships with other peers and adults. Their capacities for physical activities, accepting challenges, being uncomfortable, being resilient and independent, and simply being present in the moment. While it’s not all play or Outdoor Program, there are many opportunities where the girls have the freedom to explore the natural landscape and to plan their own activities. They are not confined within a curriculum and extracurricular activities, but are encouraged to spend time with their friends or to plan activities in which everyone can participate.

Andreas Schleicher, OED Director of Education has written that we should be teaching and rewarding collaboration, as well as individual academic achievement, enabling students to think for themselves, to act for and with others. To be part of any collaboration, our social and emotional skills are important because we will have greater perspective and empathy, along with skills to manage ourselves and work with others. If we are to have an effective social and emotional skills program for students within the curricula, then we will also need to understand that such skills begin in early childhood and need to continue to be developed outside of the classroom at all stages of development.

When Plato wrote that you can discover more about a person in an hour of play, I suspect that he was referring to social and emotional skills, the ability to negotiate and the higher order thinking skills that our researchers of the 21st century have noted.

Susan Just
Principal Lauriston Girls’ School