Today’s children (tomorrow’s adults) grow up surrounded by challenges. Learning through play can empower your child to become a creative, engaged, lifelong learner and problem-solver. By encouraging different types of play, you can help your child discover and make sense of the world around them. It’s through this discovery that they will begin to develop cognitively, socially, emotionally and physically.
Let’s take a look at the importance of play and ways that you as a parent can promote your children’s drive to learn, to imagine alternatives and positively connect with their surroundings.
What is learning through play?
Play is essential to your child’s development because it contributes to their cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being. Playtime is an ideal opportunity for you to engage fully with your children. Despite the benefits of play for both children and parents, time for play has unfortunately been significantly reduced. A variety of factors that have reduced play include:
- A hurried lifestyle
- Changes in family structures
- Increased attention to academics
- Reduced recess or free child-centred play
The role of learning through play in early childhood development
The first years of your child’s life are when the most significant brain development happens and shapes their future into adulthood. Lack of play and communication, known as “under-stimulation”, can have long-term negative consequences on a child’s learning as well as their physical and mental health.
Early childhood games are crucial to laying the foundations for formal education. Research shows that roughly 80% of brain development is completed by age three and 90% by age five. Children cannot wait until they go to primary school to begin learning, it must start long before.
Simple games you play with your children like peek-a-boo, shaking a rattle, or singing along to nursery rhymes are so much more than just a way to pass the time. These are great learning through play examples as they teach young children about communication and help them develop their motor skills and even problem-solving skills.
These early childhood games are vital to laying the foundations for when your child grows older and attends school. In most cases, learning through play starts with a child’s parents or caregivers.
Learning through play starts with parents and carers
There are many simple games and activities you as a parent can use to explore your child’s abilities and help them develop or improve their cognitive, social, speaking, fine motor, and gross motor skills. It is fun, educational, and also helps you build stronger relationships with your children.
Playing is how children learn. It comes naturally to them. Even when it doesn’t seem like much is happening, your child uses all their senses – hearing, seeing, tasting, touching and smelling. When you play with your child, you demonstrate that play never goes out of style, and you can show them that you value physical activity. You also get to model soft-skills such as sportsmanship and effort. You can be sure of one thing: your kids are watching you – and they will imitate you.
Free versus guided play
Your child’s play activities can take two different forms: guided play and free-play, (also referred to as structured or goal-oriented play and unstructured play). Both are vital for your child’s well-being, learning, and growth.
Most researchers agree that any type of play must be fun, flexible, voluntary, and often involves make-believe.
Structured play generally involves using logic to solve problems. Within structured play, your child will continue to experience the joyful, self-directed aspects of free-play – but with some guidance from an adult to ensure they progress toward a specific learning goal.
Examples of structured learning through play activities may include:
- Following directions to assemble a toy like a set of lego
- Organised sports like soccer or stuck-in-the-mud
- Board games involving rules
- Card games involving rules
Unstructured play, or free-play, is true to the name. It is open-ended and focuses on creativity. Unstructured play is improvised with no set goal or plan. It is packed full of unlimited possibilities. This type of play builds important qualities like imagination, creativity and empathy. Free-play lets your child enjoy a sense of freedom and gives them the space to make mistakes in a pressure-free environment. If your child is shy, this category of play can help them learn how to express themselves more clearly, learn how to think on their feet and approach problem-solving from an “outside-the-box” perspective.
Examples of unstructured learning through play activities may include:
- Colouring, drawing, or painting on a blank canvas.
- Inventing games to play.
- Running around a playground and imagining scenarios.
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Why does learning through play matter?
Scientific research over the past 30 years has taught us that the most important period of human development happens from the time between birth to when your child is eight years old. During these years, the development of cognitive skills, emotional well-being, social competence and sound physical and mental health builds a strong foundation for success well into the adult years too.
Although learning takes place throughout life, the speed of learning in early childhood is rapid. The phrase “soaking things up like a sponge” comes to mind. Learning through play in pre-school (or pre-primary) lays the groundwork for success in school and beyond. Although we’re speaking about the pre-primary years, we want to note that the importance of learning through play is relevant throughout the teenage years too.
High school students are under immense social pressure. Many experience high levels of anxiety around social situations. They struggle with the feeling that they have to look perfect, say the right things, be funny, be smart (but not too smart), and worst of all – they might appear on social media for everyone to see. This kind of pressure can lead to your child withdrawing from face-to-face social interactions altogether, or develop other unhealthy coping mechanisms.
Adventure-based games like capture the flag can break down the pressures that your child feels in social situations. These playful interactions can increase social skills and confidence and naturally help your child learn better emotional regulation and coping skills.
Quality play encourages communication
When your child plays, either alone or with others, they are developing important speech and language skills as well as listening skills. If your child is playing alone, they will typically narrate their action or talk to themself as they manoeuvre various toys.
Guided play is excellent for language learning. The exposure to additional vocabulary will enrich your child’s variety of words that they can then incorporate into their own language.
Play improves your child’s cognitive development
Critical thinking is your child’s ability to analyze and sift through information in order to make sense of it and apply it in the context of the environment around them. This skill involves the front part of your child’s brain. By engaging in free-play, and a lot of it, their brain builds new circuits in the prefrontal cortex, which helps your child navigate these complex social interactions and express their ideas.
Play encourages relationship building
As children play with others, they build skills that help them with friendships now and in the future. These are skills like sharing, taking turns, cooperating, listening to others, managing disagreements, and seeing other people’s points of view.
Play helps speech and language development
Language development can be a good predictor of your child’s future reading achievement. You can easily practice language skills by playing a game like “I spy with my little eye” or “charades”. These games are an effective method to improve your child’s speech in a fun and engaging way.
Play creates confidence in children
One of the most important outcomes of play is the development of confidence.
Play is a safe place to practise decision-making and letting your child participate in risky play can give them the space they need to test what they are capable of. They can safely experience their limits and achieve their own goals, ultimately boosting their confidence.
Play inspires creativity
Creativity happens when your child’s critical thinking and skill development come together to produce something new or different. Make-believe or imaginative play allows your child to explore various scenarios, reactions and conclusions. Studies show that children who pretend play have more sophisticated interaction levels with others and higher cognitive ability.
What can you do?
Both types of play (structured and unstructured) are important for encouraging your child to have a sense of curiosity and purposeful learning. When a child is involved in a structured-play activity, they learn how to recognise patterns and meet a pre-established goal in the most efficient or effective way. In contrast, unstructured play is about learning how to create from scratch and explore possibilities.
Observing how your child learns best can enrich their life with quality playtime and toys to involve both logic and creative thinking. This will foster traits that encourage lifelong learning in your children – a valuable skill for anyone.
If you’re interested in the importance of play, you may like our article on the importance of reading
What you should try to avoid doing
Don’t push your child too hard.
Children develop in their own ways and in their own time. Try not to compare your child to your friends’ children or their peers. Academic success isn’t the be-all, end-all to living a healthy and productive life. Knowing how to motivate your child – and when to give them the space to learn for themselves – is key to building long-term success through resilience.
It feels as if every generation of kids face a higher bar for success. Much of their drive for success starts at home, where parents push their kids to perfection. Motivation to succeed is necessary, but if you push too hard, your kids are less likely to develop the resilience and self-discipline they need to sustain that motivation through all of life’s hurdles, from school to career and relationships.
Don’t limit your children to inside play
Encouraging your child to explore outdoor play is extremely beneficial and necessary for their development. Outdoor play helps them to learn about the ever-changing environment and allows them to move their whole body (and build their gross motor skills). It can meet their multi-sensory needs and whether it is messy play, creative or role play, it is an essential part of their learning.
How can you encourage learning through play?
As a parent you have a role to make the time available for your children to play. It’s important to slow down from our rushed lifestyles and make the time for your child to simply discover. It’s also important that you make learning fun and relevant to your child. Try to include them in everything you’re doing – like cooking supper for example. This will allow you to teach them how things work and will empower them to ask you questions.
Praise their efforts and problem-solving strategies. Don’t worry if something is not cut perfectly even. By encouraging their efforts, you will empower them to seek out more play-based learning themselves.
Allow your children to be children
After all, learning through play supports overall healthy development. Children need the opportunity to explore the unknown, the unpredictable, and the adventurous.
Children gain a tremendous amount of confidence from being allowed to live in the moment, be free to explore nature and go where their wide-eyed sense of wonder and imagination takes them. In our frenetic world, where pushing children to “hurry up or fall behind” has become the norm, it’s important to remember that childhood is something to be savoured. By being free to develop according to their own natural rhythms, your child can enjoy a full and rich childhood.
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