What ARE kids actually learning when they play?

We take a look at what children are learning when they engage in self-motivated free play, with a focus on some of the playgrounds we reviewed in last month’s newsletter.

Do you wonder what benefits lie in play? Do you watch your children swing, run, laugh and tussle at the playground and think “oh, they’re just playing”?

Well yes. They ARE playing. But think again. They are learning. For, and about, life. And it’s helpful to understand how they perceive playgrounds and act upon their natural play urges.

In 1979 American psychologist James Gibson helped us think differently about the way we consider visual perception. According to Gibson, the way we perceive or see an environment inevitably leads to some course of action. Clues in the environment that indicate possibilities for action are called affordances, and some examples are knobs for turning, buttons for pushing, levers for sliding or pulling, and ropes for swinging. You’ll notice good design makes affordances explicit, and digital designers are creating familiar and consistent icons to aid in these affordances: we click on an envelope to open mail and horizontal lines to drop down options.

Children are born with urges to move, play, communicate and test as they grow. Play urges coupled with affordances in natural areas or man-made playgrounds are a powerful and important combination for learning. Together, play urges and affordances can drive years of joyful childhood play, and understanding more about children’s play urges can help parents avoid thinking children are ‘acting out’, or behaving badly.

What are play affordances? Norwegian Ingunn Fjortoft (2004) describes as ‘affordances’ – the intertwined relationship between individuals and the environment and implies that people assess environmental properties in relation to themselves, not in relation to an objective standard. So for play, they are the inherent properties of an object or element that ‘afford’ its use in play.

What are play urges? They are normal, uncontrollable and necessary impulses to engage in actions like rotating, throwing, enveloping, orientating in different ways, positioning objects, connecting and disconnecting, containing, transporting and transforming.

When play urges are freely acted upon in diverse and supportive environments, the result is often what is called a ‘flow’ state. Uninterrupted, this is where learning happens.

A good example of when a play urge is coupled with an affordance at a playground is when a child walks into the Armidale Arboretum playground, for example, and sees the swing. They have the urge to get on it and swing high, rotating and leaning right back so that they orientate themselves both upright and upside down. Here they are using their muscles, strengthening their arms; they are flexing their vestibular and proprioception senses by being oriented in various directions and swinging higher and higher; they are taking risks and understanding their tolerance to these risks when they swing high.

Next they see the different levels in the structures next to the swing. They jump off the swing and run up the stairs, developing gross motor skills and balance. They then proceed to jump, two feet together, down each level to the bottom, the spin around as they move toward the stairs to do it all again. Height invites children to jump, an action that develops leg strength, confidence and skills in landing and taking their own weight. Repeating this action reinforces the neural pathway associated with the action, and firms up the child’s ability to succeed with each repeated action.

At MacDonald Park on Barney St, Armidale, children race from the car to the vintage metal spider climbing frame, which they start climbing immediately. One child picks up sand and has the urge to throw it, partly to see how far it will go and partly to see how it breaks up and sprays all around. The urge to throw can be seen as an aggressive behaviour sometimes. But if redirected to an appropriate location can aid in strengthening muscles, supporting hand-eye coordination and communication when children throw an object back and forth to each other.

It often takes a bit more energy and conscious observation to really understand what skills and capacities kids are cultivating when they are playing. But when you are at the park or playground next time, take the time to think about what muscles kids are strengthening when they run, swing, jump and climb. What boundaries are they testing? And how might this testing inform them of their abilities?