I think you will be hard-pressed to find anyone in the learned community who would suggest that play somehow dampens the learning capability of our young. Children are unable to explore complex problems and must wait until the age of reason to do so. What are they to do in the interim if they are unable to play. To present a modern analogy (and if you were still looking for someone w ho disagrees with the point above), I would suggest reading Confessions of a Tiger Mom. The shock value of the book is that this woman believes her children should be continually working to improve their abilities and throw play to the wayside as unimportant. Might be worth a look-see!
I am rather startled that no one has mentioned the ground-breaking work of Jean Piaget, who famously said, "Play is a child's work."
All play, whether it seems purposeful or not, is play-acting at being an adult.
In 1969, Sesame Street took Piaget's theories and applied them to the lives of toddlers. Every playful element of the PBS series is constructed to "teach through play."
In modern psychology, a growing field is "Play Therapy." In these sessions, psychologists gently try to get children to reveal and work through problems by using toys and games.
Play is a natural inclination for all animals and human beings. That it is an effective learning tool is evinced in how quickly children learn new games or sports that they enjoy playing. Even psychologists use play-acting sometimes
In all of my educational training, I have NEVER heard that play would EVER create a decline in a child's learning capability! In my opinion, to suggest such a thing is absolutely absurd. Playing is the way even the youngest of children learn. It is their "job" at this point in their lives.
I remember being shocked at a friend of mine who became an assistant in a Montessori style classroom and spent her evenings saying things like, "I don't know what these activities are suppose to teach kids. Cleaning windows and putting beads from one dish to another, ... what the heck are they learning there?!?" I was speechless. The child is learning about cleanliness, personal care of the home/workspace, and spacial relationships. My friend's response was absolute proof of her own ignorance on the subject of early childhood education.
Another aspect of play that I'd like to add as an endnote is the importance of those early personal relationships. Children tend to play side by side (i.e. not play with each other) for the first few years of life. Slowly they begin to include others until the child is immersed in the new world of friendship. Learning to live in the world and among other people in the human race is absolutely imperative to our learning experience, even at the age when "play" is the child's true work.
Play and work might not be a separate as your question implies. This is especially true for younger children. I can't ask my one year old to sit at a desk and take notes; however, I am constantly amazed at how much he is learning each day as he plays. As we get older, there are things we have to work at that we must truly push through, but there still has to be some play time. You've probably noticed that at a certain point your brain seems to be on overload. It can't accept any new information. Play time relieves this overloaded feeling and lets us continue to receive new information. So yes, having play time is an important component in learning.
My son learned his letters and numbers by playing "I Spy" in the car as much as he ever did from looking at the letter chart in his preschool class. He learned his colors and simple counting by playing Candy-land. He learned to count higher numbers and to follow the number line by playing Shoots and Ladders. Play is a very important way to engage young learners. He is in third grade and they still play games to reinforce concepts. I teach high school and play review bingo to help the students review and study for tests. Students are never too old to play!
As a second language teacher I can tell you that play is an essential part of my teaching. Incidental learning, or learning "by accident" is renowned for its effectiveness in quickly moving data from short to long-term memory. Children of different language placed in a playground will eventually develop a form of communication, whether verbal or non verbal, and it is a scientific fact that, the more a child becomes exposed in a low-stress environment to new information, the faster it will be retained.
Therefore, I would say as a teacher that learning and teaching are more fun when there is some sort of game involved that gives the children motivation and that gives relevance to the lesson.
I think some aspect of play is essential to not only the learning of children but also the learning of older people. I think that is the thinking behind the Cognitive Constructive learning philosophy which says that to learn best people must construct their own meanings for the material they are learning. To do that, students must "work with" or put their hands on new concepts and play with them to understand for themselves how it works or what it does.
Case in point. Most kindergartners don't learn that putting dirt in the eyes is painful by taking notes on the consequences of throwing sand at people. They learn it by playing in the sandbox and experiencing the consequences of their actions first hand.
I think more and more early education is waking up to the fact that play is an essential basis of how we learn as children, and more and more the phrase "play-based learning" is being bandied about to justify a different approach to early years education where activities are constructed in "play" so that children learn most effectively.
Play is a very important part of the development of young children. There are many social skills that are learned during play activities. These social skills learned through play at a young age are the same social skills that need to be developed in order for us to function at all levels of education and learning.
Play is a great stress reliever so this would benefit learning. In addition, play and make-believe enables children to use multiple learning styles, it enables them to develop higher order thinking, it enables them to us problem solving, it enables them to develop both intra-personal and inter-personal skills, and etc. All of these are conducive to improved learning.
I agree with you. A child's ability to learn has a great deal to do with their psychological and emotional state. A child who is allowed time to play will tend to be happier than a child who is not. This will put them in a frame of mind that is more conducive to learning.