Is it ‘just play’?

Is play only for enjoyment or to pass the time? Is it a frivolous distraction which leads nowhere? In the life of a child, play involves practicing skills and exploring ideas – the ultimate goal being developing the skills and capabilities for living within the world. As members of society we each have a role, and play is the vehicle for us to become an effective participant.

“Play isn’t something children do when there is nothing better to do. Child-led play is crucial for brain development in terms of emotional development (practising relationships) and intellectual development (exploration and experimentation)”. (NZ Brainwave Trust)


Child-led play 

Children are natural-born players, play to children is as necessary as breathing. As children play they learn. At Central Kids we design our curriculum for child-led learning through play. As tamariki play and experiment they follow their own interests, and learn through discovery, they are able to work through the problems that are real for them rather than ones that have been imposed by someone else.

Through their play, focused on their interests, children will experience success and failure and they learn how to overcome setbacks and challenge. By doing this their belief in themselves (self-efficacy) will grow because they have stuck with something tricky, developing their resilience and perseverance. They have stuck with it because it is what they are interested in.


Play must be self-chosen and, in the case of children, involve little or no adult interference.

“The adult role involves many dimensions such as when to intervene and when to stand back. The adult takes time to observe, consult, plan, and participate in play”. (Michigan State University Extension)

Play that is self-directed (not chosen by an adult) allows children to learn how to work in groups, to share, to practice, to negotiate, to resolve conflicts, and to learn self-advocacy skills (how to stand up for their beliefs). When you see your child playing in the sandpit, building with blocks or pretending to be the family pet, you can be sure they are learning and developing exactly as they should be.

“Children need to feel courageous, brave, and assertive. They need to feel strong; that is the purpose of their play”. (Brian Sutton-Smith, Play-Theorist)


Uninterrupted play 

When children have time to play without interruptions from adults, they can get into a flow – where exciting learning happens. Imagine you are learning something new: sewing; cabinet making; a new recipe etc. You only get one go at it and then the tools, equipment, ingredients are put away for another month, they are only available when someone else allows it. Do you think you would feel like persisting with this new learning?


“Children learn through play: by doing, asking questions, interacting with others, devising theories about how things work and then trying them out and by making purposeful use of resources. As they engage in exploration, they begin to develop attitudes and expectations that will continue to influence their learning throughout life”. (P 46 Te Whāriki 2017)

Uninterrupted time is the space where flow can happen. We never know when a child is in their ‘flow’ while learning about their theories about the world they live in, this is why we minimise interruptions to children’s play.

“Flow is being completely involved in an activity for its own sake”. (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Psychologist)


Some of us may want life to be organised, to be in control and to be in charge at all times. A popular belief about what we think children need leads us to create a life that is as safe and risk-free as possible. In contrast play is messy, unpredictable, not only physically but also emotionally and comes from the child. By minimising interruptions to a child’s day we are enabling opportunities through play for tamariki to learn at their own pace. This is how a love for learning is established. Something we wish for all tamariki.


“Children’s brains are shaped by what they do slowly and repeatedly time after time. If they don’t have the chance to practice coping with small risks and dealing with consequences of those choices, they won’t be prepared for making larger and far more consequential decisions… While we know that the brain’s decision-making areas aren’t completely wired until at least early twenties, it is experience making decisions that wires them, and it can’t be done without taking some risks. We need to allow children to try and fail. And when they do make stupid short-sighted decisions that come from inexperience, we need to let them suffer the results”. (The Boy who was raised as a Dog by Bruce D. Perry and Maia Szalavitz).

Opportunities to revisit learning 

You will notice in our services that our environments are always set with resources available for children to use. Each day when a child arrives with their own ideas about the day ahead the items they need to support their goals are available, from paint in the art area to water in the sandpit.

The more we practice something the better we become at executing it. As we develop pathways in the brain we become more proficient and confident in our ability to try out new ideas and extend our thinking and learning. Think about learning to drive a car, the more often we practiced the more self-reliant and able we became until we were proficient drivers.


When the environment offers what children expect, they become familiar and comfortable knowing this is my place. This increases their sense of belonging “The programme allows time for favourite activities, developing skills and interests and completing longer-term projects”. (p 34 Te Whāriki 2017). Children are able to lead their learning because the environment is set ready for them to explore.

“The higher up the mountain we stand, the wider the horizon will be. Looking far forward, beyond the horizon, we cannot be certain of our destination. A child’s learning develops in multiple directions at the same time, and their concept of what makes a competent learner also changes”. (p 3 Kei Tua o te Pae book 7, Ministry of Education)


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