Learning Through Play: What does it mean and what can you do to help at home?
Updated: Jun 30, 2022
The idea of learning through play has been around a long time. Early years educators have focused on play for decades, but since the pandemic the concept seems to have gained popularity among parents too. This is probably because we were all 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.
Your role as an adult is simply to provide the time, the space and the resources to give your child the opportunity to play. It's nothing complicated.
Provide the time, the space and the resources
1. Provide the time
The good news is your child doesn't always need to be at the zoo or the swimming pool or whatever other weekend things we drag them along too. While experiences like this are fantastic, spending time playing at home is really important too.
In their own familiar environment, children feel more comfortable and are able to take more risks with their play. This means they're experimenting more and making more discoveries too.
2. Provide the space
No, you don't need a bigger house, this just means you need to give them the opportunity to play.
There might be times that you come up with or find ideas for play that help support and extend your child's learning. However, there should also be times that you get out particular toys or resources and leave them to come up with their own play ideas too. In fact, the best play opportunities are usually ideas that children come up with entirely by themselves.
For example, you might get out some toys or resources with an idea to do one thing, but find your child is intent on doing something completely different with those same resources. When that happens, give them space to explore in their own way. This is just them experimenting in their play lab.
While this self-directed play is great, sadly it doesn't mean you can always get out the play dough and go off for a cup of tea (though it sometimes does). You might start off the play time demonstrating how something works by playing with it yourself. However this should be you showing and not directing. There's a subtle but very important difference between the two. This is why you'll see trained Montessori teachers presenting an activity by doing it themselves slowly and without words.
3. Provide the resources
You don't need any fancy toys for your child to learn through play. Sometimes the simplest resources can generate fantastic play and learning:
Sand and water: There's so much learning here around science and maths as children explore liquids and solids and measuring. They'll often play for hours alone with sand and water and you should let them.
Play dough or clay: As irritating as it is when they mix all the play dough colours, try to take a back seat to their creativity if you can. They'll be using their imaginations and might also be expressing their feelings in this tactile and creative task.
Building blocks, jigsaws or shape sorters: Depending on your child's age, they'll be learning so much about shapes, sizes, ordering and logic while also developing problem solving skills and their memories.
Balls, climbing frames, homemade assault courses: Any physical activity will help children develop their strength, flexibility and coordination and this physical exertion can help to reduce stress and promote better sleep.
Games: You don't need to buy out the whole Orchard Toys collection as children's own play ideas will often be enough. However sometimes taking the time to sit down to play a game together, even something like I-Spy, helps children develop turn-taking and social skills and increases their attention span.
Music or instruments: Listening to and playing music brings so many opportunities around listening, creativity, cause and effect, the science of sound creation and even language development. It can help them to express their emotions too.
The most important thing to remember though is that play is supposed to be fun. Children need to be doing things they enjoy. So long as you've given them time and space and they have some simple resources, they'll be able to have fun playing, exploring and learning. And chances are that removing the expectations and pressures will mean you're having more fun too.
At Little STEAMers children get the chance to learn about science, technology, engineering, arts and maths (STEAM) concepts through simple play ideas you can set up at home.