In reality ‘play’ is the means by which children learn. When children are playing they are learning; when they are sitting at a desk in a classroom or watching television, they are not learning. In our society, we place great stress on academic learning: we are proud if our child knows the name of a capital city or of a political leader, and we have forgotten that this sort of learning is completely without value unless it is built upon a solid foundation of understanding how the world works. A child has to find out who they are and how the world works before academic learning has any value to them: and this is what they learn through play.
When they are playing, young children learn how to use their fingers and toes, they learn how to co-ordinate their movements, they learn how to use their senses, they learn how things fit together, and they learn what they can do and what they cannot do, they learn how they fit into the world. As they get older, they learn how to play more complex games, and start to understand the power of imagination and their ability to be inventive.
There is not anything that has greater educational value than play. The aim of the educator should be to let children play just about all the time, at least up until the age of seven. After that, play still has to be their principal activity, and, furthermore, there has to be a fairly smooth transition from play straight into a child doing things that are useful. The idea (championed by modern schools) that children need an interim period where they are not allowed to play, but instead are forced to sit at desks basically doing nothing at all, for several years, before they are capable of playing a useful role in society, is clearly nonsensical.
Parents who choose not to send their children to school, and opt to teach them at home, are often very defensive about the amount of time that their children spend playing. They may even pretend that more time is spent doing lessons and looking at books, than is ever really the case, just because they are frightened of other people’s reactions.What is needed is a more supportive attitude towards play from every member of society; if we were to hear of a five-year-old who was being made to sit at a school desk, we ought all to be scandalised, and to be asking the parent why they were not ensuring that their child had more time in which to play.
If the people who run schools were serious about education, they would be looking for ways of getting desks out of the classrooms, so that play, rather than work, could start to dominate the school curriculum.
Insufficient opportunities to play makes children dull. Play has been so curtailed over the past hundred years or so, that we no longer have no idea of what children are capable of achieving when they are given unlimited playtime.