The June grass, amongst which I stood, was taller than I was, and I wept. I had never been so close to grass before. It towered above me and all around me, each blade tattooed with tiger-skins of sunlight. It was knife-edged, dark, and a wicked greed, thick as a forest and alive with grasshoppers that chirped and chattered and leapt through the air like monkeys.

I was lost and didn’t know where to move. A tropic heat oozed up from the ground, rank with sharp odours of roots and nettles. Snow-clouds of elder-blossom banked in the sky, showering upon me in the fumes and flakes of their sweet and giddy suffocation. High overhead ran frenzied larks, screaming as though the sky were tearing apart…

For the first time in my life I was alone in a world whose behaviour I could neither predict nor fathom; a world of birds that squealed, of plants that stank, of insects that sprang about without warning.

(Laurie Lee, Cider with Rosie).

Lynn McNairThese recollections from the author and poet Laurie Lee of his adventures in nature as a three year old remind us of the power of first-hand experiences for children. This intense awareness of the world around them helps develop consciousness of what makes things work, and how everything is connected in the world.

We know that children learn most about the world when they can enjoy unstructured time and space to play and explore. Play is the visible language of childhood and it has two fundamental characteristics – it is self-chosen and self-directed, that means it is chosen by the child, not by the adult. Children make choices about play, when it starts, when it stops, what it involves, what it connects to. I often hear play defined as ‘free play’, but real play, is always free. Through play children can achieve true mastery in their own terms, mastery of their emotions through play, and mastery of skills that are important to their culture.

Children have an innate desire to learn through play. I have travelled all over the world to study how children play and I have observed children’s play, often in the most unlikely spaces. For example, in Iceland I observed children climbing over very steep and jaggy lava, folding their bodies into tight spaces to play a game. Children look at everything, noticing the details and questioning what they see and what they can do within that space. In India I watched a child play with litter, sorting it around her transforming it into members of her family.

When children have the opportunity to spend time on their own and with their peers, play supports children to be self-reliant. We know that children will play anywhere, but giving children access to equipment and the freedom to play with it and with each other matters too. Children benefit from mixing with children of all ages and not being segregated into groups. At Cowgate we have learned that children of all ages learn from each other, young from older and also older children from the very young.

Friedrich Froebel, the 19th century German educationalist, best known as the originator of the 'kindergarten system’, proposed that adults should not intrude but delicately observe as children play. When given time, space and opportunity to play our children become creators, inventors, and discoverers. Our role as adults is to create the possibilities for the child to invent, discover and transform. Children do not learn through adult instruction, but from caring adults who enable them to be critical, self-reflective, knowledgeable, morally and socially responsive beings. Froebel argued that we all develop through activity, doing and work. When children are encouraged to engage directly with our wondrous diverse world, splashing in puddles, baking mud-pies, tracking insects through the grass, they are doing the best work of all. Using all their senses to discover the power of learning through play.

Dr. Lynn.J. McNair is Head of Cowgate under 5s Centre in Edinburgh, and is a Teaching Fellow at the University of Edinburgh. Lynn is passionate about working for children.