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The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Alex Masters

The state of play: how Lego can lead to deeper learning

‘Play is the beginning of knowledge,’ so a wise man once said. Indeed, recent studies have found clear links between play and deeper much so that there have been calls for Ofsted to stress the importance of play in its inspection framework. There are many compelling cases for the link between child-initiated play and learning, here are just a few:

  • A US study found that children’s language performance was kids in playgroundsignificantly higher when teachers allowed children to choose their own activities.
  • Studies on rats have found that the brains of rats raised in toy-filled colonies had thicker cerebral cortices than those raised in boring solitary confinement.
  • Research has found that superhero play helps children to explore their emotions and cope with their fears.
  • A study from Play England and the BTHA from found that the benefits of play are multiple, including development of motor skills, the promotion of confidence and social and communication skills.

As adults, we are often led to believe that learning must always involve something serious and arduous. But leave a group of five year-olds in a room with a pile of randomly-sized boxes and what will you likely see? Creativity, concentration, collaboration and an (albeit wonky) cardboard castle. This is great play but, perhaps more importantly, it is also excellent learning. One of our webinars from Anna Ephgrave shows persuasive evidence that a child’s brain ‘lights up’ to its maximum when it initiates its own play. Anna also shares her top 10 tips on how to spot when child-initiated play is taking place, including creativity, concentration, energy and persistence.

Adult involvement

It’s not just a case of putting 20 children in a room with some Lego and bubble wrap and sitting back to observe rapid learning. Without adult involvement a child’s play can lead to chaos as they begin to argue or, faced with too many challenges, lose interest. Here are five top tips on how you can enhance a child’s learning when they’re at play:

  1. Only interact if you see a child looking puzzled or about to give up: this is your ‘teachable moment’ when you can intercept and model a new skill or give them much-needed encouragement.
  2. Imagine the environment belongs to the children. This helps to put you in their shoes and ask: ‘Is my environment stimulating and interesting?’
  3. Remember to be sensitive to a child’s wellbeing, introduce activities in an exciting way, and give the child autonomy and freedom to experiment.
  4. Assess the risks, identify steps to remove or manage them and adapt the adult:child ratio accordingly.
  5. Strike a balance between adult- and child-led activity through a fluid, adaptable process rather than sticking to a rigid timetable.

There’s a great example from a school which encourages children to explore and play outside together, no matter the weather, including a bear hunt with sound-effects, instigated by the children.

Future problems

Despite the growing evidence, there has been some debate that the government is focusing too much on formality and moving away from play-based approaches to learning. It will be interesting to see if there will be any changes in the near future. In the meantime, perhaps we as adults have something to learn from the children: maybe the only reason that we grow old is because we stop playing.

Further reading

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