Pots and pans, sandpits and sticks – play opens a world of discovery and learning for kids

Pots and pans, sandpits and sticks – play opens a world of discovery and learning for kids
Generated AI image using Midjourney.

Do you allow your child enough time to play? Is there space to play at home? Are there sticks or pieces of material available to make a homemade tent? Is there a place outside for mud play?

The role of artificial intelligence (AI) in education is a hot topic of discussion among teachers. In primary schools computer gaming is huge and a popular playmate. The gaming industry is worth more than $3-billion a year in Africa alone, and it’s growing with the use of mobile devices.

My worry is that playing in the “real world” is very important in the early years of learning, and this might be lost.

Young children mainly learn through exploration, play and imitation. They absorb information from their surroundings, including interactions with parents, caregivers, teachers and other children. They learn by asking questions, making mistakes, and experimenting with the world around them.

I turned to AI to see how it understands play. I asked it to play with my child. It replied: “As an AI assistant, I am not physically present to play with your children, but I can suggest some fun activities you and your children can do together. How old are your children and what are their interests?”

I found this response heartening, since it recognised that human interaction was still integral. I continued the dialogue and AI said: “Great! Here are some activity ideas you and your 10-year-old children can do together. Board games: You can play classic board games like Monopoly, Life, chess or draughts. Art: You can get out some art supplies and create some fun and colourful drawings. Cooking: You can make a meal or a dessert together and get creative with different ingredients, and so forth.”

Play allows children to create and explore a world they can master, conquering fears while practising adult roles.

I was delighted with the response and quizzed it on the role of play. I liked the answer which spoke about children using their creativity while developing their imagination and dexterity, as well as physical, cognitive and emotional strength. Play is very important to healthy brain development. AI confirmed the research, which says it is through play that children at a very early age engage and interact with the world.

Play allows children to create and explore a world they can master, conquering fears while practising adult roles, sometimes with other children or adult caregivers. Play helps children develop new skills that lead to enhanced confidence and the resilience they will need to face life’s challenges.

Natural immersion

Free, undirected play allows children to learn how to work in groups, share, negotiate, resolve conflicts and how to speak for themselves. When play is child-driven, children practise decision-making skills, move at their own pace and discover areas of interest.

Without pressures to succeed or expected outcomes to achieve, play enables children’s natural immersion in a world of discovery.

Read more in Daily Maverick: AI can help us find some answers in the elusive quest for ‘quality’ in education

Play can happen in glitzy state-of-the-art classrooms or under trees. It can involve expensive Lego or a couple of stones. On a trip to Jordan recently I watched children playing on a pile of building sand near the apartment I was staying in. They were there for days, sitting with dirty hands, designing and building in the springtime sun. I thought of children back home playing for hours in a pre-primary school sandpit and their elaborate designs. These are practical investigations where product isn’t important; instead, practical elements of the journey are freely enjoyed and explored for intrinsic interest.

Expert Kathryn Peckham, in her book Developing School Readiness, observes that, while practical paint-mixing or ingredient-weighing may never result in the colours imagined or the correct recipe followed, the experience comes in the freedom to adapt plans and trial techniques. This is beautifully observed with two-year-olds, brushes dabbed in paint and sploshed on paper.

Through play, children are given permission to be inquisitive, and to gain new experiences and sensations first-hand.

Watching children role-playing, dressed in period costumes, at school is also fun. This play adapts and changes, with new ideas being added as children join or leave the activity. Through these experiences, children adapt thinking and actions and accommodate the thoughts and opinions of others. They manage the limitations of the context and resources as well as the new opportunities that present themselves.

There is no rigid path to follow, and children experience first-hand that adaptability is both useful and successful. With no requirement to achieve outcomes, children can attempt something for as long as they are motivated to do so, returning to it once new perspectives have been considered. In reflecting, they renew motivation and encourage fresh ideas.

Preschool children change personas when they pin on the tails of cheetahs, zebras or tigers. They have a safe place to assume, explore and trial roles and behaviours.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Schools of thought – the evidence for and against single-sex and co-ed learning

Peckham says playing fields have little to do with background, class, race or status. Children experience changing situations as new children join and ideas are offered. This allows them to solve new problems in situations that are not pre-subscribed.

Without set agendas, children can approach situations from their own viewpoint. Trying out ideas repeatedly, they respond to the successes and failures they experience to develop an intuitive approach to new situations.

Through play, children are given permission to be inquisitive, and to gain new experiences and sensations first-hand. With deep levels of involvement, children investigate whatever draws their interest for the time their curiosity needs.

They can act out things they have seen and experienced in ways they can make sense of, for example through fairytale play. It’s a safe place to experience uncertainty, to immerse themselves in other worlds.

Elaborate rules are created

As older children become aware of others’ perspectives, the emergence of social play sees groupings form, disband and reform. Social skills of sharing, communication and negotiation, as well as conflict resolution and self-regulation, are rehearsed to meet the needs of play as the specific skills of each child find a platform, encouraging new social links to form.

In these group situations you find arguments, you see some children trying to take control and others mediating. You see elaborate rules being created, and the skills of self-control and tolerance rehearsed as well as cooperative turn-taking.

Because play can be enjoyed alone, children experience ease in their own company.

In play, children’s creative tendencies are enhanced, demonstrated and valued. Taking any form or direction, children’s inventiveness and resourceful use of props add new dimensions while setbacks allow for creative solutions. With the ability to react creatively, no problem need derail the fun as they are dealt with.

Read more in Daily Maverick: A longer school day or shorter holidays? There are ways to improve pupil outcomes

Play allows children to encounter new experiences. Through motivation and changing circumstances, they develop skills to draw on previous experiences, and recognising similarities, are informed by previous actions and solutions.

Play initiated and governed by children often follows familiar patterns as the interests of those involved drive the repetition of required experiences, allowing the practice of familiar patterns, problem-solving and exploring links to the real world.

Do you allow your child enough time to play? Is there space to play at home? Do you, for example, sometimes just take out the pots and pans and allow for cooking play? Are there sticks or pieces of material available to make a homemade tent? Is there a sandy space outside for mud play?

Remember. No marks, just have fun! DM

Dr Mark Potterton is principal of Sacred Heart College Primary School and director of the Three2Six Refugee Children’s Project in Johannesburg.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

home delivery

Say hello to DM168 home delivery

Get your favourite newspaper delivered to your doorstep every weekend.

Delivery is available in Gauteng, the Western Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, and the Eastern Cape.

A South African Hero: You

There’s a 99.7% chance that this isn’t for you. Only 0.3% of our readers have responded to this call for action.

Those 0.3% of our readers are our hidden heroes, who are fuelling our work and impacting the lives of every South African in doing so. They’re the people who contribute to keep Daily Maverick free for all, including you.

The equation is quite simple: the more members we have, the more reporting and investigations we can do, and the greater the impact on the country.

Be part of that 0.3%. Be a Maverick. Be a Maverick Insider.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

MavericKids vol 3

How can a child learn to read if they don't have a book?

81% of South African children aged 10 can't read for meaning. You can help by pre-ordering a copy of MavericKids.

For every copy sold we will donate a copy to Gift of The Givers for children in need of reading support.