Learning through play

Sometimes the best learning comes through play. We need to be encouraging more of it.

Watching my child play is the most amazing, fascinating thing.

At two years old, he is developing new play skills every day. He has gone from the tiny baby that needed my help to play with a bead maze, or needed entertaining with puppet shows and blocks, to a little person engaged more and more in solo, independent play. Certainly not entirely independent—he loves to have his mama in full sight at all times—but watching him engage in creative play is a wonder.

Small new modes of play abound every day. Talking to toy animals, or making them talk to one another (“Nice meet you donkey! Nice meet you too!”), putting on plays and shows while standing on a podium (instructing us to clap now and then, and finally announcing the end of the show), and modes of imitation are frequent. He enjoys making ‘pretend’ coffee, toast and eggs in his toy kitchen, making mud pies with mama in the garden, and parking his scooter or toy fire engine as he prepares to dig the garden like daddy’s tractor.

He’s also physical. He is in a constant state of motion: hopping like a bunny, bouncing like a frog, twirling in a dance, tumbling and tripping. He loves using modes of transportation such as his scooter or pretend motorcycle. He practices falling and then laughing at himself when he falls successfully.

Simple but rich

Some might say our days are simple, that days which don’t have a planned activity have little purpose. But whether we go to an organized play group, the library, or simply stay home to engage in play, our days are rich and full, and the little one is learning constantly through play.

 Play stimulates all aspects of a child’s emotional, social, creative, physical, and intellectual development.

At this young age play is vital and important to his development. It’s the reason why early childhood education programs are most-often play-based, and why many kindergarten programs are moving toward a play-based curriculum, including the proposed full-day kindergarten curriculum.

Play stimulates all aspects of a child’s emotional, social, creative, physical, and intellectual development. What appears to be merely the mixing of paints and colours and dripping paint on paper is really the development of self-expression and creativity; stacking blocks and building legos is actually development of coordination and motor skills; dressing up and make-believe develops communication skills. There is no right or wrong way to play — no taking tests, no scores, no correct or incorrect results. Play is limitless and boundless, giving children so many opportunities.

The skills that one hopes children will develop in preparation for their school experiences, and for their long-term education, are all developed through play if they are allowed the opportunity. Mathematical skills and logic-building, social development and awareness, spatial capacity and physicality, reasoning, deduction, creativity — all of these things develop through play. Indeed, even the United Nations recognizes the importance of play in a child’s life and development, declaring that “children have the right to play” (Article 31) in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Simple in theory, but increasingly difficult in practice

It’s such a basic, seemingly simple message. But play is not so easy to come by. In urban settings, there is less opportunity for green space and free time outdoors. There is a trend towards ensuring children’s safety and limiting their opportunities to learn by doing. There is a movement towards advanced early learning — how early do our children need to learn their alphabet, learn how to read, write, count? Is the way to these so-called milestones through teaching and memorization, or are there ways to incorporate them through play, so that these ‘milestones’ come more naturally to the child?

As parents, caregivers, and educators, it’s important to recognize the value of play and the need to support learning through play for children. How can we give our children more opportunities for unstructured, free play? How can we facilitate play so that our children might reap the full benefit of it?

There are many simple things that we can do to support our children in their play adventures and play learning experiences.

Facilitate outdoor play.
Outdoor play and experiencing nature is full of benefits. Developing physicality and spatial awareness are the basics, but there are smaller, less noticeable benefits as well. The child who climbs that tree, or builds a rock tower all by themselves, or walks across a log without assistance, might well be thinking, “I did that without help! I can do it!” They are also learning independence, developing a sense of self and awareness, learning resilience and strength.

They might be learning about nature by listening to the birds, running through the grass, discovering worms and carpenters and beetles and ants in the ground. Perhaps they are learning about life cycles and growth by planting their own garden. Easy methods of facilitating outdoor play experiences could involve providing tools for free, dramatic play such as an outdoor kitchen (think mud pies!), or a patch of dirt to make a pretend (or real!) garden. Perhaps you might place tree stumps in a line to make a jumping path for your child, or to use as a table and chairs. Try creating a rope bridge, or stringing tin cans from a tree branch to make instruments. Take nature walks!

Provide unstructured free play time. Children need time to learn, and the same can be said for play time — children need it. If a child is going to learn through play and experience the full benefits of play, they need uninterrupted time. Give them time—a half hour, an hour—to really play, and just play. Facilitate when needed: “Mommy fix train tracks?” or “More blocks please?”

Let your child be your guide. Play is their opportunity, their experience. It’s not yours. It’s not mine. The child has to be the leader and the guide in play. Be excited when they invite you into their experience! And follow their lead. If they want to make mud pies, encourage them, ask them about it, be their taste tester if they want. Rather than assuming they want to build a house out of blocks or legos or sticks and stones, ask them what they want to do. This simple action helps to facilitate their independence, assertiveness, and choice. It also allows them to learn at their own capacity. Not every child is ready for numbers, letters, or logic at the same time.

Most importantly, don’t be so concerned about the end result. Play is natural, and facilitating it can be enriching and rewarding. Help out your child, and let them guide you. Have fun with play — play is fun. We can see that in our child’s heart and eyes and actions. My tiny person becomes enthralled, involved with his mode of play. He is fully engaged, and play is important to him. He takes it very seriously. I want to do everything I can to encourage this, to take it seriously, to realize its full importance. His lived experience is just as important as mine is, as yours is. Let’s all help encourage our children — to play.

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