Learning Through Play

Play is the most important thing a child can do as they grow up. Children grow up wondering about the world and exploring how things work.  The best way a child can understand the world around them is through play. Much research has come out on the importance of play and how play benefits learning. 

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During play, children develop a plethora of skills, such as cognitive skills, physical abilities, communication skills, social skills and literacy skills. For example, a child might pretend they are at the supermarket. Doing this, they can work on their cognitive skills by adding things together in their shopping cart or taking away things they don’t want. Pushing the cart around would work on their physical abilities. If they were playing with an adult, the adult could ask great questions about their shopping to work on vocabulary and communication skills. Playing with the child and following their lead would help develop their social skills, and maybe creating a shopping list would help their literacy skills.

What is valuable play? Is there play that isn’t valuable?

As parents and caregivers, there are many ways we can facilitate play both in and out of the classroom. Most importantly, focus on the learning that happens during play. Do not always think about an activity that meets a certain goal or standard; instead, think about an activity that your child might be doing and what type of learning can come from it. Most activities that your child naturally explores can teach a skill. Is your young child banging on pots and pans? Think about noises and how pots and pans make one sound, and cups might make another. Explore the concept of louder and quieter, as an example.

Free play is very important for children as well. Children should be able to have activities to choose from and be able to play with whatever activity they would like. This allows a parent or caregiver to see what interests the child, what they might like and dislike, and will help a child develop skills based on things they enjoy.

Play is valuable when it happens in a number of different settings. Allow children to play both indoors and outdoors. Give them the opportunity to play in the back yard, playground, or a local park.  Different settings provide different play experiences for children. Playing with blocks on a hard surface and then on beach sand will create a totally different experience and teach a totally different skill.

While all play can be valuable, the more active and independent play is, the more valuable it becomes. Video game play does not provide the type of play that facilitates learning and growing. Play is most valuable when it is hands on. 

As a parent, how can I help my child learn best through play?

Zero to Three.org has great ideas for how parents can best use play as a great tool to help their child learn and grow.

· Join in a child’s play.Whether you are a parent or a caregiver, children can get the most out of their play when you are playing with them. Ask them questions about what they are doing. Let them take the lead in their play, and make statements that cause them to think a little further into what they are doing. Answer any and all questions they might have as they are playing. Research has shown that learning is deeper when it is in the context of a loving relationship.

· Think about what they can learn during an activity.As a parent of caregiver, think ahead about what they can be learning about when they are doing activities. What can a child learn about in a bathtub? On a playground?  Use those thoughts to help engage play. Show them how an object might sink or float in a bathtub. Allow them to sit in the grass and play with the sand and feel different textures on the playground.

· Allow your child to explore safely and be supportive.Provide your child with a safe environment in which to explore free of any hazards. Make sure toys are not too small, broken, or too heavy.  Get down on a child’s level and ensure there is nothing in the area that can pose a threat.  Once you have created that safe environment, allow your child to explore freely and help them to do that.

Learning though play is a highly talked about topic for educators and there is much research that surrounds its importance. NAEYC.org and zerotothree.org has a number of articles that support the idea that play is valuable for young children and how it enhances importance skills that are valuable as they get older. Research also shows that play helps adults as well! It physically improves your health AND reduces stress! What better reasons are there for getting out and playing with your child?

Nicole Chiello is an Education Specialist at The Children’s Workshop. She received a BA in Elementary Education and Psychology from URI. Nicole has been with the team for four years.  Before being a director, she was a school-age coordinator, as well as a substitute for the Public Schools. Her favorite thing about working with children is the guarantee that every day is different!