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One of our core beliefs is that learning should be fun.

Fun is important for learners of all ages but especially children whose natural state is play and curiosity. Like mini detectives, they’re constantly gathering clues and information that help them understand the world.

A sense of play shows children why they’re learning something and how it fits into the big picture, empowering them to continue their journey of discovery.

It’s even scientifically proven that an enjoyable learning environment boosts cognitive development.

The secret is making learning relevant to children’s lives and interests — and that means play! In formal classrooms there is often distance between pupils and teachers, which means learning becomes robotic instead of active and kids quickly forget what they’ve been taught.

Our holistic education classrooms are engaging spaces with various zones designed to spark children’s curiosity and empower them to take charge of their learning. One of our favourite zones is the Activity Arena where we play Rush Hour — a mind-boggling but super fun logic puzzle.

Rush Hour is a hit with our learners and tutors, so let’s learn more about it and the importance of play in learning.

a picture of a female student playing the game rush hour at the activity area in the classroom

What is Rush Hour?

How badly do you want an ice cream?

In Rush Hour players must use logic to help the ice cream van driver escape a traffic jam. It’s a challenging and tactile brain-stretcher that develops critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

Rush Hour also enhances kids’ memory, concentration, and communication skills. But best of all, it’s fun!

How do you play Rush Hour?

Rush Hour presents players with up to 40 traffic jam scenarios. Players must clear a path for the ice cream van through gridlocked traffic by sliding the cars up, down, left, and right until they reach the exit.

Simple in design but fiendishly difficult in practise.

While Rush Hour can be played alone, solving the puzzles as a group introduces the concept of teamwork and gives children an opportunity to learn vital communication skills.

Once children get the hang of Rush Hour they can progress to increasingly difficult gridlocked scenarios. They learn to examine the board and experiment with different strategies to move the ice cream van closer to the exit. Often there are multiple options to evaluate to reach a solution.

Key skills playing Rush Hour develops are:

Why play is an important part of learning

Games like Rush Hour make learning fun and accessible for children. Here are more reasons why play is crucial to children’s learning and development.

1. Supercharges Critical Thinking Skills

From the outside, play might seem frivolous. Yet play introduces children to decision-making and independent thought in an enjoyable and low-stress way. Within the parameters of the game’s rules, children learn to evaluate problems and assess various solutions.

Play allows young learners the freedom to make their own decisions and arrive at conclusions independently. It also provides a safe space for children to make and learn from mistakes, a crucial part of development into adulthood.

2. Strengthens Problem-Solving

Problem-solving is at the heart of play. Whether it’s a spatial logic board game or an imaginative scenario, children use reasoning, and hypothetical theories to test ideas and pick an appropriate solution.

Play is an opportunity for children to test these skills and nurture independent thought without restrictions. Albert Einstein said, “Play is the highest form of research.”

Without limiting rules or beliefs children can explore connections, gather information, and make autonomous choices. This could lead them to some surprising and thought-provoking answers. As they learn and grow, play helps children develop flexible thought and solve problems independently.

3. Improves Memory and Concentration

Play has been proven to improve cognitive abilities like working memory. Working memory is one of the brain’s key executive functions that allows us to temporarily store information in our brain to solve an immediate problem. Think of it as a post-it note in the mind.

Working memory is an important part of cognitive development because it allows us to problem-solve in the moment without losing track of what we’re doing.

Concentration or attention span is different to working memory. Attention is how we take information and working memory processes that information. Children with ADHD or executive functioning issues sometimes struggle with working memory and/or attention span.

Play is a great, low-stress way to absorb new information. Engaging activities focus the mind on a task long enough for the working memory to make sense of the information received. Card games are a great way to boost working memory and attention span while having fun.

4. Develops empathetic communicators

Communication is a vital aspect of every child’s cognitive development. Play lets children practice their growing language skills with their classmates and teacher. In group games, for example, children hear how their teacher and classmates use language to express feelings or opinions. This improves their verbal communication and confidence when socialising with others.

Play also encourages children to work together, see the value of sharing, and learn how to take turns. Even shy children get caught up in the excitement of play, contributing their ideas and working with others to formulate a plan. The ability to clearly and effectively communicate ideas is a confidence boost and equips children to speak up and contribute thoughtfully as adults.

Not only does play build healthy relationships, it’s also beneficial to children’s mental health. Children develop empathy for themselves as well as others, and approaching new challenges with playful curiosity helps their brain cope better with stress. From finding inclusive games that everyone can play to giving their imaginations free rein, playful learning helps children grow and thrive.

5. Engages the senses

When children play they use all their senses to take in information and understand more about their world. Tactile games like Rush Hour help develop fine motor skills and spatial awareness, while the sensory element makes learning more memorable.

Sensory play boosts children’s cognition by using touch, sight, smell, taste, and sound to sharpen their ability to make comparisons and describe experiences. Engaged learners are active learners, and when children take control of their learning they’re better able to push away distractions, remember instructions, and plan tasks.

6. Teaches the values of sharing and patience

Sharing, cooperating, and working in a team are all valuable skills we need as adults. But how can play foster the importance of sharing?

Play requires everyone to work together for mutual benefit. It helps children understand that it’s important to respect everyone’s feelings and that every person deserves a turn. They’ll also learn that sharing is a way for everyone to feel included and that more progress can be achieved by working as a group.

Crucially, cooperative play helps children make friends and negotiate. It also teaches them how to handle disappointment. Therefore play can be seen as an instrumental tool in learning how to regulate difficult emotions. As adults we know all too well that disappointment is a part of life. Something simple like losing a game teaches children that making a mistake isn’t the end of the world. Nor is it possible to avoid negative emotions. What’s important is how we handle setbacks. And how we treat others can make all the difference to our personal and professional lives.

a picture of a teacher and two girls playing the game rush hour in a classroom

7. Make Learning Fun

Play gives children an opportunity to learn important life skills in dynamic and exciting ways. Compared to dull rote memory exercises, play lets children learn hands-on — an experience they won’t forget.

Most play is collaborative which helps children make friends, voice their own ideas, and respect others’ feelings.

The fun nature of play also breaks down barriers and connects children to their teacher. Instead of passively listening to what they’re told, children actively absorb information from teachers who prioritise play. When children see that learning is fun they’ll seek out more opportunities to learn, creating the building blocks for a bright future.

8. The secret ingredient – laughter!

We believe that play’s secret superpower is laughter. When we can laugh at our mistakes we prevent the shame of ‘getting it wrong’ from holding us back.

Colin Harris,  a celebrated headteacher and leader of a primary school described by Ofsted as “outstanding” said, “Laughter in the classroom is contagious and might even venture as far as the head’s office.”

We couldn’t agree more.

Laughter helps children relax. Feeling relaxed improves concentration, allowing learners to calmly take in the big picture and process connections. Noticing details and patterns boosts problem-solving abilities and removing the need to be right frees children to express their opinions.

Stress isn’t conducive to learning, that’s why you’ll always hear plenty of giggles from our Activity Zone!

Further resources for playful learning

If you’re a teacher, parent, or caregiver who wants to bring fun into learning we highly recommend beginning with a game of Rush Hour.

You can buy the board game here.

Or try any of these brain-boosting games that aid cognitive development in children:

Matching games

Matching games like Snap are a fun and easy way to boost working memory and concentration. Some games match shapes and colours, others may match different species of birds or types of leaves which further aids learning.

Stroop

Stroop is an attention and observation game that involves naming the colour a word is written in rather than the actual word.

For example, name the colour: pink.

Or name the word: blue.

Stroop requires sharp focus which boosts children’s cognitive development.

Asking questions

Children love a good ponder. Our Critical Thought Activity poses a new weekly question designed to set the mental cogs turning. Typically these are ‘high level’ questions that require more thought than a simple “yes/no” response.

Example questions are:

Admit it, we’ve got you thinking!

Enjoyed this article? You might like to read more about how our weekly Critical Thinking Activity helps children think big or why children should learn how to problem-solve early.

a picture of a girl playing the game rush hour on a white table in a classroom

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