If you open the door to Lisa Hanley’s classroom you could be greeted by anyone from a doctor to an astronaut, a farmer or, if you’re lucky, Batman himself. The sand tray might be filled with compost while, in another corner of the room, a child is helping The Three Little Pigs build their dream home, complete with indoor swimming pool.
To the untrained eye it might look like chaos, but child’s play is far more sophisticated than that.
"Yes, it is a melee of noise, but it's also a hive of industry," says Hanley who has been teaching infants since 2010 in St. Mary's national school, Ballinagare, Co Roscommon.
The impact role-play can have on developing a child’s capacity for perseverance was reported in a study called The Batman Effect. The study showed that children who took on the role of a character, such as Batman, were able to apply themselves to a task for longer than those who did not.
Perseverance is important as it can facilitate better academic achievement. Engaging in role-play helps develop children’s perseverance, partly because it creates a safe space for them to fail.
"Unfortunately, if a child gets a sum wrong, they can be devastated," says Joan Kiely, Dean of Education, Curriculum and the Early Years, at Marino Institute of Education, "but in play it's "oops"– there is permission to fail, permission to try out, to explore and there is no fixed agenda."
Role-pay can allow children explore situations, experiences or emotions that they may be curious about because it is a risk-free platform
Role-play in classrooms around Ireland isn't limited to the donning of a superhero's cape and its benefits don't stop at perseverance. Whether they are playing Batman or the baker, the outcome is still valiant.
“Playing roles can have a therapeutic effect because they are playing out roles vicariously that they haven’t yet experienced in real life. Things like death for example, or being very ill or upset about something,” says Kiely, “in a way they find solutions to life through socio-dramatic play.”
She explains that role-pay can allow children explore situations, experiences or emotions that they may be curious about because it is a risk-free platform.
“Socio-dramatic play is a playground for roles they may have seen or experienced in real life or roles that they haven’t experienced at all and might feel nervous about,” says Kiely.
“For example, the child who is timid might get an opportunity to see what it is like to be the hero, it’s a testing ground for life.”
Kiely says that it can often be the shy child who takes centre stage.
“You may come across children, who are quite shy, but may shine in socio dramatic play, it’s not always the extrovert child that does very well.”
It develops their fine-motor and problem-solving skills while also helping develop their capacity for self- regulation
The benefits of play in an educational setting can been seen beyond the controlled curtain of a study, such as The Batman Effect, and are reflected in the introduction of Aistear to schools and early childhood education 2009.
Aistear, a curriculum framework for children aged under-six, advocates a playful approach to supporting children’s development and complements the primary school curriculum in the infant classes.
A decade on, teachers are seeing the impact putting play front and centre in the infant classroom is having on children’s academic and emotional outcomes.
It develops their fine-motor and problem-solving skills while also helping develop their capacity for self- regulation.
Kiely explains that children may have an argument over who is playing the doctor or the patient.
“Nobody wants to be the patient, you often have to supress your own desire in play in order to further your play agenda,” says Kiely, “So, in that way play certainly supports things like self-regulation and persistence.”
Play also promotes language development and many teachers have seen oral language thrive in the infant classroom through play. “Lots of teachers are keenly interested in doing socio-dramatic play in schools because they know that it really facilitates language development,” says Kiely.
She explains, however, that this language development is not accidental and will only occur if the teacher has planned work around the desired language prior to the play.
Hanley has noticed how play has helped develop sophisticated language during play in her classroom.
“My principal was coming in to my room and hearing the children talking about the gavel in the auctioneers and was so impressed by the level of oral language in the classroom.”
Hanley, who trained as an Aistear tutor when it was in its infancy, has observed how play, within the curriculum, has evolved and grown over the past decade.
“It was this standalone hour of play in the day,” says Hanley, “but what has changed is the idea of playfulness throughout the day as a methodology for teaching and learning.”
Playfulness can complement the primary school curriculum in all classes, regardless of age
She would also advocate the use of play throughout the primary school years and not just in the infant classroom.
“We’d let second, third and fourth class come back to the infant room and they would play as infants, it was fabulous,” says Hanley.
The Aistear framework is aimed at children aged 0-6 years, but playfulness can complement the primary school curriculum in all classes, regardless of age.
“Play might change, but play should permeate right the way up to sixth class, says Kiley. “You don’t play competitive board games and competitive card games in the infant classes, it’s just not appropriate but, as they get older, they become more interested in games with rules.” Children also become more interested in drama and performing plays.
Niamh Brennan taught infants for thirteen years but is currently teaching sixth class in Rathpeacon National School, Cork.
She continues to use play as a methodology even in the senior years. “Today we spent the day making models and they absolutely loved it,” says Brennan, “it was like Aistear but in a senior setting.”
She believes using play in the senior classes helps promote social skills that are difficult to teach didactically.
“Aistear teaches children those skills but, by stopping it in first class, you have to rely in them picking it up somewhere else.”
“There is absolutely no rule that says in first class you take up the biro and the book and you don’t have fun,” says Kiely, “If you take a playful approach to any subject, the children are delighted to be doing it.”
Batman Begins: How teachers and parents can facilitate children's role play
Dr Lisha O'Sullivan and Dr Kathleen Horgan lecture in early childhood studies, Mary Immaculate College in Limerick.
They outline the importance of teacher attitude towards play, the challenges they face and the role of the parent in supporting play.
“Our own levels of playfulness are important, and it is important to acknowledge that teaching through play is very challenging,” says O’Sullivan.
“Once teachers start teaching through play, they very quickly see the benefits of it, but it can be challenging, particularly with large class sizes, to facilitate learning through play.”
“Certainly, there are some classrooms where there is less space due to smaller rooms or larger class sizes, but despite that they find ways to play,” says Horgan.
“While the infrastructure is important and can certainly support play, research highlights that it is the quality of the interactions that really matter.”
The digital draw has also had an impact on traditional play.
“The popularity of ICT and computer games have also influenced children’s opportunities to engage in more traditional forms of play,” says O’Sullivan, “It is important that, in the school context, children have opportunities to play in mixed aged groups and to engage in many different types of play, promoting high quality learning through play.”
Parents, too, are becoming more aware of the importance of play, says O’Sullivan.
“Not just in school but also the home learning environment and of how they can complement the play experiences children are having in school, in the home,” says O’Sullivan. A link can be made in school with play in the home by using materials from the home. “Using materials from home can be a lovely way to get parents involved,” says O’Sullivan.