There are many aspects about play that make it valuable to the learner. With play, there is a casual and relaxing element to it. It's a fun way to "let it out" and freely explore ideas with no pressure to perform. In playful activities, there is a safety net. We can experiment and mistakes are not that important. Mistakes teach us the wrong way something is done and allows us to learn through experience. Play allows us to be free in our expressiveness in non-threatening ways. It's a natural way that children begin to learn social skills and conflict resolution. It is especially good for emotional development.
I ran a play-centered kindergarten for 8 years. The core philosophy was that children at that age learn best through play. I still see great value in play at all age levels. Like many teachers, I'm under some pressure to meet State standards. As a professional, I need to find the balance to meet my employer's expectations, while at the same time, making sure I meet the collective needs of my students.
I try to find many opportunities for play centered activities in my art class. Through the year, I have many sessions where I let the children "play" with the ideas they have been learning in class. When painting, I call it "free painting." Children are allowed to paint what they choose, mix colors, experiment with different painting tools (we've used cardboard, tooth brushes, q-tips, straws, and a few other objects as well for painting activities).
We also have "free draw" activities. It's a time where children can experiment with the drawing concepts they have been learning, create something on their own, or use one of the many step by step books I have in my room. At the end of the year I always set up a variety of centers (straw painting, marble painting, construction art, drawing, pastels, clay, and others) and children can choose which center they want to work at. It's always a favorite time with the kids and a time where I have the fewest behavior problems. It's messy, but fun. Throughout the year I also sing, tell jokes and try to allow for movement in my room (the room is small - about 1/3 the size of a normal classroom. My goal is meaningful learning in a fun way.
I'd love to hear your thoughts on the importance of play.