Children learn through play may sound familiar to some and foreign to others. As a person that has worked in the field of early childhood for over ten years, I can tell you that it is still difficult to convince teachers, parents, and childcare providers that play is a positive thing when it comes to children and their development. Click here for ways to encourage development in your toddler.

Half the time, we cannot get parents to let their kids go outside and play for fear that they may get dirty or that they may get hurt. Playing outside gives kids the freedom to run, jump and explore nature. Let your children get dirty outside.

Play is Not Frivolous

I think there is a misconception that relates play to being frivolous and something that takes away from the time that could be spent teaching. As a stay-at-home mom, it was easy to answer the question of what did you do today by saying “we played all day.”

When I say children learn through play, I am not referring to scheduled activities such as soccer or preplanned games. The type of play I am talking about is spontaneous, child-initiated play that takes place among children in which they decide the rules and they establish the roles.

children learn through play
children play pirates

What is Play?

When you think of play, you probably think about activities or games to play. However, it may be harder to define the actual word “play.”

Webster’s Desk Dictionary has 34 different meanings to define the word “play.” To narrow the definitions down to the ones that are most relevant to children, the following would apply:

  • to act or imitate the part of a person or character (such as playing doctor)
  • to employ a piece of equipment (such as blocks or Legos)
  • light, brisk, or changing movement (such as pretending to fly or jump like a frog)
  • exercise or activity for amusement or recreation (like playing hide-and-go-seek)
  • fun or jest, as opposed to seriousness (by saying made up words or singing silly songs)
  • the action of a game (such as red light/green light or tag)

Garvey defined play as an activity which is: positively valued by the player, self-motivated, freely chosen, and engaging. These characteristics are important for parents, teachers, and caregivers to remember. If adult values, requirements, or motivations are imposed on the children’s activities, then the very nature of their play may change.

Why Play is Important

Children learn through play because when they play, they use their fine and gross motor skills. Moreover, they react to one another socially, use language to either talk to each other or themselves, and they think about what they are doing or plan what they are going to do next.

Children, engaged in play, are using reasoning, language, physical abilities, and social skills. These behaviors are essential to the cognitive development of young children, and therefore are a very useful tool for learning.

children learn through play

Key Elements to Help Children Learn Through Play

There are a few things to keep in mind when enticing your child into play.

  1. Children must be allowed to make their own decisions. Provide materials so that the children can decide when and how to use them. Blocks, PVC pipe, ribbons, sand, construction paper, playdough, and cardboard boxes are all open-ended materials that inspire creative thinking, and you will be amazed at what children can create when they are given a chance.
  2. Allow children to become fully engaged. Allow enough time for children to immerse themselves in play (30-60 minutes) in a safe environment. Children that feel safe and secure are free to experiment, try new ideas, and investigate the laws of nature.
  3. Play is spontaneous and unscripted. You can arrange an environment that is conducive to play or just allow your children to begin playing on their own impulsively. Play should be flexible so that the children can make changes if they desire. When children have to adapt, they are learning to develop flexibility in their decision making and thought processes. This is a vital life skill to have.

Play may be a difficult concept to define, but everyone can recognize a child that is happily engaged in play. Children may be actively playing alone, with a friend, or in a group.

Children learn through play, and it is associated with the development of a child’s cognitive, socio-emotional, and motor development. Therefore, it should be a part of a child’s life at home, school, and child development program.