Learning to play well: Sydney Opera House Play Award

With a prize worth $10,000, Sydney Opera House’s new Award is more than child’s play.
Abstract image of various shapes and colours in a lump on a background that is purple at the bottom and yellow above. The most recognisable shape is a red hand in the middle of the clump.

The concept of “play” takes on more serious meaning with the advent of the Sydney Opera House’s Play Award. Worth $10,000, this new prize will be granted to a school, learning program, class or an individual student or teacher, who has made an outstanding and continuing contribution to the notion of “play in learning” with demonstrated positive impacts. 

The Award is made possible due to a donation from renowned Finnish educator Professor Pasi Sahlberg and will be ongoing for the next four years.

Play is indeed a central tenet of Sahlberg’s philosophy. He advocates for the importance of play in academic study and the evidence-based benefits of it in children’s lives.

‘Play is how children explore, discover, fail, succeed, socialise and flourish. It is a fundamental element of the human condition. It’s the key to giving schoolchildren skills they need to succeed – skills like creativity, innovation, teamwork, focus, resilience, expressiveness, empathy, concentration and executive function,’ he writes in his book, Let the Children Play: How More Play Will Save Our Schools and Help Children Thrive, co-written with William Doyle.

The Sydney Opera House, too, has a rich connection with play and its intrinsic connection to the arts and learning. From the inspiring stories on Australian stages, to the artists who enliven its Centre for Creativity, the organisation is committed to harnessing artists and audiences with the capacity and skills to embed play in their classrooms, creative and civic spaces, and everyday life. 

To be eligible for the Opera House’s Play Award, schools, projects or programs are able to self-nominate, although individual nominations must be made by peers or schools. Judging will be via by a panel of external consultants including Professor Sahlberg and the Sydney Opera House Creative Learning team.

The Award is for anyone in early learning or primary schools, including teachers, as well as those who aren’t in casual or permanent roles, such as artist educators, music teachers and PDHPE (Personal Development, Health and Physical Education) educators. The Award can be used to further facilitate the successful institution or individual to create a more comprehensive program to centre play-based learning. It may also be used to raise additional funding or partnerships if necessary. The only stipulation is that the prize money needs to be spent on the nominated program.

It should be noted, however, that to be considered valid for nomination, submissions should be geared towards practical projects. Research about play will not be funded, albeit with one caveat regarding eligibility: if the project is play-based research where the research is undertaken through practice, this will be accepted.

The recipient/s of the Play Award will be announced by the Sydney Opera House on International Play Day, 28 May 2024. 

Applications for the Sydney Opera House Play Award close on 12 April 2024.

Thuy On is Reviews Editor of ArtsHub and an arts journalist, critic and poet who’s written for a range of publications including The Guardian, The Saturday Paper, Sydney Review of Books, The Australian, The Age/SMH and Australian Book Review. She was the books editor of The Big issue for 8 years. Her debut, a collection of poetry called Turbulence, came out in 2020 and was released by University of Western Australia Publishing (UWAP). Her second collection, Decadence, was published in July 2022, also by UWAP. Her third book, Essence, will be published in 2025. Twitter: @thuy_on Instagram: poemsbythuy