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Play is more important than it looks for all children

August 28, 2016

Nature Play is an initiative developed to help families, schools and community organisations increase the time children spend in unstructured play outdoors and in nature.

This is especially important for Canberra children because according to the Australian Early Development Census (AEDC), released in March, children in the ACT are more likely to be vulnerable in the area of Physical Health and Wellbeing, which includes gross and fine motor skill development.  

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10.9 per cent of children in the ACT are vulnerable in the Physical health and wellbeing, up from 9.4% in 2009, worse than almost all states and territories.

Nature play experiences for children look like immense fun for children, and also wildly popular amongst adults on social media.

It’s easy to forget that children’s play is the fundamental vehicle for children’s learning in the early years – the most rapid period of neurobiological development in a child’s lifetime.

While open ended opportunities for play are good for children, the research evidence shows that when an adult or educator is engaged in scaffolding play; providing ‘explanation’, ‘questioning’ and the ‘channelling of the children’s interests’ in these environments, this can be especially effective for their cognitive skill development.

For example nature based play is also a chance to build on children’s natural curiosity to introduce basic science concepts. Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) learning in schools is all the rage at the moment. In early childhood this means introducing and sparking interest in basic concepts that can built on in later childhood; like gravity.

“Look, the two red leaves are falling to the ground.” “Why do you think they fell?”

Quality interactions that support children’s development are enhanced when we have confident parents and skilled educators working together.   Enhancing the status of the early childhood profession must be at the top of the agenda for politicians as educators and teacher practice is pivotal to children’s later outcomes, and changing the life story for disadvantaged children.

US researchers have found that the education gap starts to open from age three. Research shows ‘children in welfare families hear 30 million fewer words, on average, and have less than half the vocabulary of upper-income peers by age three’. It’s no wonder that these children reach school behind, and by then, it is much harder to catch up.

Labor believes that Government has role to play here – like Nature Play CBR -  in supporting families and communities to provide access for children to play experiences, but also through access to high quality play based early childhood education and care.

Of greatest concern to me is that these vulnerable children are not accessing quality early childhood programs be it through playgroups, preschool, playschool, family day care or long day care. With only around 70% of three year olds accessing early childhood education and care in the ACT, there is more do to ensure that all ACT children can access the rich learning experiences that amplify their development.

Children who access a quality early childhood program for 2-3 years  have much higher results in literacy and numeracy at the end of high school. And vulnerable children benefit the most because they often don’t have rich learning experiences in the home.

We should be especially proud of the ACT’s free public preschool system for children in the year before full-time school. It is high quality and has contributed for a long time to ACT students’ superior results in later education compared with other jurisdictions.

However, not all children are involved in the rich learning experiences younger than four years of age, especially children from vulnerable backgrounds.

There couldn’t be a more important task for any incoming Member of the ACT Legislative Assembly than ensuring more young children have access to play based early learning.