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April 15, 2019 3 min read

“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.

Free 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

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:

  • Ask questions about what they are doing. Try to avoid questions with “yes” or “no” answers. Instead, ask questions that will encourage them to think and talk about what they are doing such as:
    • “Why do you think……?”
    • “What do you think would happen if……?”
    • “Explain to me what you are doing….. ?”
    • “Tell me about what you built (your drawing, etc).”
    • “How are you going to….?”
  • Use sophisticated vocabulary when you are talking to them while they are playing. For example, if they are drawing a picture of a garden with flowers in it, you can say:
    • “It looks like you are making a garden with flowers.  What kind of flower is this? Do you know what this part of the flower is called (stem)?” Then point to the petals and say, “What are these called? Yes, they are called petals. Have you ever noticed that different types of flowers have petals that are different shapes and colors?....”

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.

  • Help children make connections to prior experiences that they have had that are similar to what they are doing when they are playing. This helps them broaden their background knowledge.  Research has shown that the more background knowledge and personal connections children make when they are learning, the better their memory and comprehension of new, related concepts will be. You can broaden background knowledge using the garden example by saying:
    • “Remember when we helped grandma plant the sunflowers in her garden?  My hands got so dirty and wet because the dirt was black and moist when we dug the hole.  What was the name of that special tool we used to dig the hole?........”

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.