Learning Through Play: What does it mean and what can you do to help at home?

Updated: Mar 9

The idea of learning through play has been around a long time. Early years educators have focused on play for decades, but over the past year the concept seems to have gained popularity among parents too. This is probably because we've all been stuck at home with limited space and contact and feeling like we should still be doing something productive with our children.

But, what is learning through play?

As Professor Dorris Fromberg said in her TEDx Talk "children learn in quite different ways [than adults.] Play is what pulls together the logical and creative parts of the brain."

It's through playing that young children's brains develop, as well as their communication and language skills. Think of your child as a little scientist learning about the world. Play is your child's lab as they carry out experiments and make new discoveries.

Play is your child's lab as they carry out experiments and make new discoveries.

When a young toddler is stacking bricks and knocking them over, she's learning maths and science concepts such as shapes, gravity, balance and counting. She's playing and she's learning.

So, why is learning through play so important?

By age 3, roughly 80% of brain development is complete and this rises to 90% by age 5. It's these early years of life that have the biggest impact on brain development and this can have a profound effect in later life.

A study in Jamaica in the 1980's involved health workers spending an hour a week with parents, supporting and encouraging them to play with their young children. 20 years later these children were found to have done better in school, had better social skills, were less likely to commit crimes and had a 25% higher average income. It really is that life changing.

Play can help many different areas of learning:

Understanding of the world: This is one of the main benefits of play. It might come through discoveries around science or maths concepts like floating and sinking, or via role playing going shopping. Almost all of children's play moves on their understanding of the world in some way.

Communication: Play will often bring with it very natural opportunities for language development as children model the language they hear or use language to communicate their intentions in a game.

Collaboration: Playing together with adults or other children brings with it the chance to work together and develop social skills, such as sharing and turn taking.

Concentration: Because play is fun, children often become very absorbed in what they're doing and start to increase the length of time they can focus on one activity.

Problem solving: As children try new things through their play, they're learning to think critically and negotiate their own way through problems they encounter.

Emotions: Play is an excellent way for children to develop and process their emotions and this means it can help to reduce stress too and even help their sleep, yes really!

Creativity: Free play is the ultimate creative activity for a child. I'm constantly amazed at the creative games my children come up with when left to play on their own. Increased creativity has other associated benefits that link back to better emotional health and problem solving too.

How can you facilitate play at home?

For most children, learning starts with parents or carers engaging with, playing with and responding to them at home.