Remote Learning: Why Play Should be the Feature of Learning in a Time of Uncertainty

Here we go again…..

As we return to Level 4 remote learning in New Zealand, teachers prepare to respond to a version of ‘school-at-home’. Schools look to support parents’ expectations of how learning should look when children are not seated in their classrooms doing learning.  During ‘Big Lockdown 1.0’ (March, 2020), there was, understandably, anxiety about the damage lockdown would do on children’s progress. Parents worried that many children would “fall behind” in their academic grades given the interruption to their schooling lives.  Interestingly, this ran parallel to worries of economic ruin, never-before-seen levels of unemployment, doom and disaster – simply because we as a nation took pause to stop a deadly virus in its’ tracks.

Yet, here we are, 17 months later in ‘Big Lockdown 2.0’ in a better position than most other countries around the world. This includes economically, health-wise, and with children, who, unlike many of their international peers, did not have months and months of disruption to their schooling experience.

So, should we be worried if, over the next few weeks, our children don’t receive the kind of formalised schooling most would expect or anticipate in a usual school year?  What if – this unanticipated break from the usual routine afforded kiwi kids the opportunity to engage in a different sort of learning?

Playing at Home – The Hidden Benefits for Learning

Most parents would acknowledge that play is something important for children to do when not at school.  Typically, however, learning is seen as a separate occurrence from play.  This focus is primarily on the development of children’s literacy and numeracy skills, and knowledge building in science, the arts, technology, and so on.  Learning within these areas is more formal (think: sitting down, writing, completing tasks, puzzles, problems, or activities set by the teacher).  For many adults, this is what learning looks and sounds like.

But what if learning could look and sound different – and produce some far wider benefits for children besides increasing their knowledge about things already known?  What if learning could look like the growth of creativity, initiative, innovation, self/emotional regulation, and diverse thinking abilities?

Building Forts is Learning!

When children engage in play in which they set the direction and have control over, they are exposed to a broader and more diverse development of skills and ways of thinking than anything any teacher could plan to cover in a formalised classroom situation.  Play helps to give children a sense of normality – especially in a time of uncertainty and anxiety.

In addition, it helps them make meaning about what’s happening in and around them, and to experience fun and enjoyment (Play Wales, 2020).  That fort construction you trip around in the living room? The one for which all your sheets and blankets are now being used? That has enabled your child to develop spatial awareness; three-dimensional shape knowledge; imagination; creative thinking; perseverance; problem-solving and innovation, to name just a few skills, knowledge, and executive functions important in childhood development.


Executive Function Development

There is significant research to support the prioritisation of developing children’s executive function skills in the early years (ages 0 – 8 years) (White, 2012).  But what are the executive functions? How do these support children to get ready for more formalised learning?

There is a broad range of executive functioning (EF) skills, but the development of them all ensures humans develop the behaviours required to plan and achieve goals. Fundamental EF skills include adaptable (flexible) thinking; planning; self-monitoring; self-control; working memory; time management, and organisation. Research has identified that when these skills are strong, children’s intelligence, morality, thinking flexibility, and emotional regulation are developed and applied in positive ways (Zelazo, Carlson, & Kesek, 2008).  The way in which these skills develop in childhood has also been linked with long-term outcomes including physical health, substance dependence, personal finances, and even criminality (Shoda, Mischel, & Peak, 1990; Moffitt et al., 2011).

Just Like Eating your Greens

Another way to think of the importance of EF skills is to view them a bit like eating your greens.  We know that a healthy diet contributes to a healthy body. When physically healthy, humans are then able to live to their full potential.  EF skills form the foundation for all other types of learning to occur.  Just like eating your greens, without the development of EF skills, other types of knowledge-based learning – such as reading, writing, and mathematics – would be more difficult for children to do.

Can’t pay attention for too long? Sitting learning to read will become more difficult.  Can’t remember or sequence a series of memories? It becomes difficult to retell an event in a story or to hold a sequence of events in your mind to share with others.  Can’t manage your emotions or regulate how you feel when you get frustrated – not many people will want to be around you or want to work with you for too long as a result!  EF skills, just like broccoli, aid in the healthy development of our children’s thinking and emotional behaviours.

A Lockdown Opportunity: Pretend Play at its Best

So, what does this mean for parents with kids at home this ‘Big Lockdown 2.0’? Encouraging children to engage in play and cultivating more mature forms of pretend play is a natural way for children to develop EF skills outside of formal school environments (White & Carlson, 2011; White, 2012). In practical terms, that means finding ways at home to support children’s pretend play.  Pretend play is the kind of play that we, as adults, are not needed to be ‘in’ – but can spend important time resourcing and enabling in and around our home space.

Providing a Safe Context

This will mean, firstly, providing a safe context for pretend play.  Making it acceptable and encouraged.  For some families with older children, pretend play may be viewed as childish or babyish – laughed at or even shamed.  Changing the way in which pretend play is seen and accepted in our home environment is critical to its existence and development. Pretend play is identified as one of the most important types of play that children can be engaged in – so when you spot it, it should be nurtured and valued.

Having the Right Stuff

Secondly, children need support for their play, by having access to a range of things to play with.  These things do not have to be the latest toys, or fancy props for play (e.g., shop tills, fancy costumes, puppet theatres or pretend toys).  In fact, the less the things ‘tell’ kids how they are supposed to be used, the better.  If children need to pretend that a thing is something else, they are using their brain in a far superior way to when the ‘thing’ tells them what they are.  For example, a child who has access to a store-bought shop till will have to imagine less, than a child who creates their own shop till from a cardboard box, buttons, and glue.  These things – loose parts – can be sourced from around your home and used and reused for a variety of types of play.  They don’t (and shouldn’t) have to cost a thing to find (nor need you to leave the house under current Level 4 restrictions).

Look for these things around your home:

  • raid the recycling bin (clean up cans, plastic bottles, cardboard, glass jars)
  • old sheets and blankets
  • pegs, rope/string, old books (to use as weights or props)
  • unused containers, items that you have sitting in a draw that may be being ‘saved’ when you haven’t used these for some time……
  • bowls, utensils, buttons, broken electronic equipment, anything you don’t mind being used in play
  • natural things – leaves, acorns, stones, branches/sticks, shells, dirt/mud – anything you don’t mind in or used outside the house!

A great list to take a look at, for more ideas, can be found here.

boredom is the beginning of imagination

Providing the Time and Space

Finally, children need uninterrupted time for play and do not need an adult involved in their play all the time.  Children who now find their days to be less structured and long, may initially look for instruction or entertainment from adults.  This feeling of boredom is a good thing, but often a challenge for parents – many of whom will also be juggling work commitments remotely.  A good phrase to keep in mind is that boredom is the beginning of imagination.  When children get bored and are given enough time, they will start to think of things to do and imagine ideas and ways in which to not be bored.  Combine this with an environment that is well-resourced and supports play, and imaginative outcomes will follow.  It’s only when children don’t have things to play with or the support for play, that boredom results in trouble and mischief!

Your Role in Children’s Play

Pretend play does not need an adult to be inside it pretending with children as they play. Don’t be tempted to join in and undertake a role in the play. If invited by your child into their play, don’t spend too long – always looking for a way to gently step back and allow your children to remain in their pretend world without you.  The more you can be a silent observer, rather than an actor in the midst – the more benefit this is to your children and their learning.

The time for you to support this play is outside of the ‘bubble’ pretend play exists within – chatting to your child about what you noticed.  For example, if you noticed your children enjoying a game of ‘families’ make sure to include new language around what you saw. Describe how they used the things they included in their play.  Praise them on the way in which they played nicely with each other, or how they may have solved or overcome a problem in their play.  In a nutshell – give your attention to what you want to see more of – either in the way they were thinking, speaking, interacting, or managing themselves.

Device Use and Pretend Play

In an ideal world, it is important to have kids off devices and interacting with the human and natural world around them.  But let’s face it, while, in theory, it would be great to have our kids’ device free – laughing and running outside, playing unsupervised and gleeful – the reality for many parents is far less Sound of Music, and much more Home Alone.

Avoid the Use of Crap Apps!

What then, if we do have to resort to our kids using devices as a method of play during their lockdown experience?  For parents facing this dilemma, the key to remember is being discerning about what they are engaging in and for how long.  In the words of Mitchel Resnick, (creator of Scratch and author of A Lifelong Kindergarten), there are some ‘crap apps’ currently named ‘educational’ within the digital app market.  If we want to ensure at the very minimum some learning as a result of device use, we can choose apps that promote creative thinking, problem-solving, social interaction, and collaboration.

Minecraft is one example in which the principles of play can be supported within a digital world. In fact, Marc Armitage challenges us to think of Minecraft as Digital Loose Parts. Many schools will have access to the education edition of Minecraft and can point parents in its direction if needed.  Parents should contact their schools for more guidance around the latest apps available and sit alongside their children as they learn to navigate these tools.  If it is an app that does not require a level of active thinking or interaction, it is probably a ‘crap app’!


There is something undeniably different for all of us with this ‘Big Lockdown 2.0’.  It is a reminder that the world is a far different place to 2019 pre-COVID living and that the threat of COVID still exists.   But it doesn’t have to be for our kids, during their time at home this lockdown.  By enabling opportunities for children to play, especially in pretend ways, learning will occur. A sense of normal can be retained as much as possible in their own world.  It may not be in areas that parents trust teachers to support (such as reading, writing, and maths) – but it doesn’t mean children won’t be learning at all.  If we recognise the benefit of play in much broader skill development. This includes  the way in which children develop their memory, pay attention, create, imagine, solve problems, interact with each other, and manage their own thoughts and feelings. Play is the natural vehicle for these skills to develop.

So be reassured parents and whānau. When the pots and pans get dragged into the living area, or when a war is being conducted in the hallway with blankets and artillery – you can hand on heart know that your children are not worse off for missing school.  Learning is still going on, and in a way, for many children unlike anything they will experience during their time at school.  And that can only be a positive outcome for them while learning remotely in this time of uncertainty.