“Play-based learning in the early years is a powerful and effective approach with numerous benefits for children’s holistic development,” says Lauren Sargent Alkhalifah, Vice Principal, PreK-Grade 2 at GEMS American Academy – Abu Dhabi.
“Play is the natural language of children,” she continues. “Children learn more when they experience new ideas and scenarios, allowing them to explore their world, make sense of their surroundings, and discover new concepts in a way that is engaging and enjoyable.”
Lynn White, Deputy Head of Primary at GEMS World Academy – Abu Dhabi, agrees: “A play-based approach develops communication, literacy, and numeracy skills in authentic contexts, and supports the development of movement and gross and fine-motor skills.”
When children start attending school – which in the UAE begins as early as age three – huge emphasis and expectation is placed on the acquisition of knowledge, the development of skills, and academic outcomes. It’s only natural that schools are associated far more with learning than playing and having fun.
But in good schools, the two go hand in hand.
“Play involves the formation of relationships, which is a critical part of a child’s wellbeing,” says White. “And it gives children ownership of their own learning, while making learning feel less like actual learning – because it’s fun!”
The power of imagination
“Through play, children develop cognitive skills such as problem-solving and critical thinking,” says Alkhalifah. “Whether they are building with blocks, sorting objects, or engaging in pretend play, these activities stimulate their brains and lay the foundation for future learning. Play-based learning fosters creativity, imagination, curiosity and a love for exploration, which can instil a lifelong passion for learning.”
Alkhalifah explains that through the process of imaginative play, children get to explore various roles, scenarios, and concepts, allowing them to think outside the box and develop problem-solving skills. “Whether they’re pretending to be astronauts, doctors, or chefs, these imaginative scenarios encourage critical thinking and decision-making, all while having fun,” she says.
White concurs: “Play-based learning promotes social, physical, emotional and cognitive development, while also encouraging and nurturing curiosity, imagination and wonder. It provides opportunities for problem-solving, exploration and decision-making, allowing children to make sense of the world around them.”
The space to play
Given the multiple benefits of play-based learning, the physical space and facilities afforded it take on extra importance. The quality of school playgrounds and other areas dedicated to indoor and outdoor activities should therefore be a key consideration for parents.
White, whose students benefit from her school’s brand-new campus and abundant play areas, explains: “The learning environment is significant no matter what the age of the student. Yet in early years settings, it plays an especially key role in a child’s learning and in shaping their attitude towards school. The classroom and other school areas should provide contexts for children to explore and inquire through play, both indoors and outdoors.”
At Alkhalifah’s school, one of the best American schools in Abu Dhabi, they have newly invested in refreshing their outdoor spaces and introducing a range of facilities that are specifically designed to enable optimal play-based learning. Children of all ages are thereby able to socialise, interact, and simply have fun together in a safe, appealing environment.
“When children engage in collaborative play with their peers, they learn valuable interpersonal skills like communication, cooperation, and conflict resolution,” says Alkhalifah. “They also develop empathy and emotional regulation as they navigate the complexities of social interactions.
“Play provides a safe space for children to express their emotions, fears, and desires, helping them understand and manage their feelings effectively. Moreover, play encourages self-confidence and a sense of autonomy as children make choices, take risks, and experience the consequences of their actions, all of which contribute to their overall emotional resilience.”
A love for learning
It’s clear that play-based learning nurtures a love for learning itself. In the mind of a child, that can be the difference between having to go to school and wanting to go to school.
“When children associate learning with enjoyment and discovery rather than rote memorisation, they are more likely to become curious, independent learners who actively seek knowledge,” says Alkhalifah. “In essence, play-based learning in the early years not only enriches children's intellectual growth but also contributes to their emotional, social, and physical development, setting them on a path towards a well-rounded and successful future.”
White echoes this and adds: “When opportunities and environments for play are valued, and provided by both parents and teachers, the opportunities for learning are rich and the benefits for the developing child are limitless.”
GEMS World Academy – Abu Dhabi is hosting an Early Years Stay & Play event on Wednesday, October 11. To register for the event, click here
To attend the next GEMS American Academy – Abu Dhabi Elementary Open House on Saturday, October 7, register here