“Children learn as they play. More importantly, in play, children learn how to learn.” – O. Fred Donaldson, Ph.D., and author and founder of Original Play
Teachers, especially those who work with younger children, understand the importance of play in helping children learn. Research has shown that play helps children develop cognitive, social-emotional and physical skills as well as enhance foundational concepts in math, literacy, science and social studies. According to the 2018 report by the American Academy of Pediatrics entitled The Power of Play: A Pediatric Role in Enhancing Development in Young Children, active play is fundamental to children’s health. In fact, play is so important in child development that the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights has designated it as a right of every child. However, there has been a shift towards the importance of more drill and skill academics and less emphasis on play-centered opportunities in the classroom and at home. In addition, family life has become so busy that children often do not have much unstructured free time in which to play.
The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) compiled research on play and children’s learning in its new book, Serious Fun: How Guided Play Extends Children’s Learning. In this book, the authors define playful learning as a combination of free play and guided play. Both free play and guided play are open-ended and child-directed, but guided play involves the feedback and interaction of an adult. Hopefully, once parents understand the importance of play to their child’s development and learning, they will make it a priority to set aside time for both free play and guided play.
Fortunately, it is not expensive or difficult to encourage playful learning at home. You do not need fancy toys or materials. All you need for children to engage in free play is time, space and access to everyday items you can find around your house such as cardboard boxes, kitchen supplies like pots and pans, art supplies or stuffed animals. Give them a few materials and step back to let them use their creativity and imagination. Aside from keeping an eye on them to make sure they are safe, the best thing to do is leave them alone so that they are free to play.
Guided play requires adult interaction and parents may be nervous about the “right’ way to guide their children. However, the following simple techniques can be used to enhance their learning while they play:
This conversation could easily lead to discussing favorite flowers and their names, how flowers grow, etc. Asking questions and using more challenging words will help build your children’s vocabulary.
As you can see, the conversation will be fluid and will depend on how the child responds, but the goal is for the adult to help steer the conversation to what the child already knows.
Playful learning is crucial to children’s development and should be made a priority at home. Make sure to schedule ample time for free play and guided play. Do not be overwhelmed by the adult role in guided play. Instead, follow the guidelines mentioned above and enjoy meaningful dialogue that will enhance children’s background knowledge, increase vocabulary and stimulate cognitive skills.