Play is much more than just having fun! In fact, renowned psychologist, Jean Piaget said “play is the work of childhood.”
Lev Vygotsky, another psychologist, said “In play, a child is always above his average age, above his daily behaviour; in play, it’s as though he were a head taller than himself.”
Not only is play fun and an effective way to learn, but it also helps to build self-confidence. Play is essential and it is how children learn.
How does play affect learning? Play is crucial to building towards a child’s later academic learning.
Pushing them in early academic pursuits, such as learning letter names and sounds, reading, and completing mathematical pencil and paper problems, does not “speed up” their progress.
So much stress has been placed on early academic learning in recent years that more people in the early childhood field are beginning to speak out against the negative effects of pushing early academics, in an attempt to defend play.
Why is Learning Through Play Important?
While children can still learn through direct instruction and observation, the strongest connections to concepts are formed when children “discover” and make sense of the world on their own through hands-on experiences.
What better way to learn than through play, which is a natural form of exploration?
Learning through play also has many other positive outcomes. Play is typically an active and joyful experience, which lends itself to social interaction between children and between adults and children.
In addition, play is iterative, in that the concepts learned then build upon themselves, leading to even deeper knowledge and understandings.
8 Benefits of Learning Through Play
The following eight categories are skill areas that show the benefits of play-based learning.
1. Fine Motor
Play that involves holding small tools, grasping utensils, and using fingers helps to develop fine motor skills. This involves things like scissors, crayons, paintbrushes, Legos, and playdough.
2. Gross Motor
Whole-body movements are involved in gross motor development. Large muscles are engaged during activities like skipping, jumping, running, tumbling, climbing, and riding bikes.
For language development, vocabulary growth and effective communication, children must be able to use symbols for representing reality.
In play, children use objects to represent real-life things, which then carries over into using words to represent those same types of things.
Play involves oral communication, singing songs, and reciting rhymes, which all aid in language development.
What are the social benefits of play? Experiences in play offer ample opportunity for children to learn social skills and social rules or norms of behaviour.
They communicate with others, verbally and non-verbally. Kids also practise social concepts during their play such as sharing, taking turns, empathy, teamwork, and compromise.
Play takes care of many of children’s emotional needs.
It gives them the opportunity to express positive emotions through laughing and smiling. Active play is helpful for children to reduce stress, raise mood, and induce sensations of achievement and high self-esteem.
Through play, children can also work through scary or challenging situations in their lives or from their imaginations.
6. Problem Solving
In their play, children build upon concepts they have previously learned. These concepts may involve planning, cause and effect relationships, and how to move or manipulate various types of objects.
They look at what works and what does not, then try different ways to accomplish their goals and solve challenging problems.
Play encourages divergent thinking or coming up with creative ways of tackling issues and exploring various solutions.
Research suggests a connection between block play for youngsters and mathematical aptitude in later years.
Complex block play encourages thinking, planning, problem solving, and concentrating, which are skills often observed in children who go on to excel in maths.
Therefore, this type of play is thought to affect cognitive development.
The 16 Best Learning Through Play Activities
The following types of play help children explore their world, build upon prior learning, and reap many of the benefits outlined above.
Use a sand table, smaller container of sand, a sandbox, or a trip to the beach.
Like sand, water play can occur inside or outdoors, employing an assortment of tools and offering practice for gross and small motor skills.
Try a water table, tub, kitchen sink, swimming pool (large or small), puddles, and a trip to the lake or ocean.
Kids can build with a wide range of materials and toys, such as blocks, play logs, tiles, train sets, marble runs, and a variety of plastic and wooden construction sets. Cardboard sheets, boxes, paper, egg cartons, and the like, also work well with tape.
Children practise pre-maths skills, problem solving, concentration, and patience.
Learn more about the benefits of construction play and how to encourage it in your own home.
As a bonus, kneading playdough and clay offers therapeutic effects, such as relaxation and stress reduction.
Fine motor and gross motor skills can be developed with movement activities, along with cognitive function and overall health.
Do these indoors or out, depending on the specific choices. Outdoors, try hopscotch, obstacle courses, and tag. Indoors, you may lead the kids in yoga, Simon Says, and “tight-rope walking,” using string or yarn.
Outdoor Play/Nature Exploration
Scavenger hunts are a fun outdoor activity, which can be geared towards nature items, if you wish. Nature hikes are another fun way to stimulate imagination and learn about science during play.
In parks and at schools, playground equipment offers safe ways for children to use those large muscles. Jump rope, Red Rover, and climbing trees remain as childhood favourites.
Kids love to play dress-up, and with drama they can pretend to be various characters. Add different types of household props, like kitchen items, for more make-believe fun.
Emotional, social, and cognitive learning can all take centre stage.
Provide real instruments, those made especially for children, or old pans to beat on with wooden spoons! Of course, they can sing songs and recite rhymes along to the beat and tunes.
Open-ended art play with no set “product” directed is preferred for cognitive development. Supply crayons, pencils, markers, paints, various types of papers, glue, and tape.
Art is important for fine motor skills, visual perception, pre-writing skills, and of course, creativity.
Listening to Stories
Listening is an important strength for kids, and attending to stories and books being told or read to them is good practice for this skill.
Thoughtful choices can also be very calming for children. Keep stories short and high interest for the best results.
Some children like to hear the same ones, over and over, which is fine since memorization is also an important cognitive skill.
Simple Group Games
Kids practise social skills and gain cognitive abilities, as well.
Small table-top toys are great to encourage fine motor development. Try strung beads or macaroni, linking toys, lacing cards/shoes, small Legos, puzzles, and small objects picked up with clothespins or tweezers.
Pretend cooking with pans, spoons and dry macaroni is one option. Safely helping Mom or Dad in the kitchen with real cooking is another possibility.
These cooking activities can reinforce pre-maths skills, language development and self-esteem.
Symbolic or pretend play is where objects and toys are used in place of other things. You can model this for your child, showing how an empty cereal box transforms into a boat for small figurines, for example.
If children have access to toys and common household objects (like empty toilet paper rolls), they should have what they need to take part in symbolic play. This is important for cognitive development, motor skills, and creativity.
Free play can take place outdoors and inside. It is not a “free-for-all” or wild, dangerous play. Free play just means that children initiate the play and are free to make choices from among the available options.
Those options could involve any of the activities explained above. This type of play is important for social and emotional development, problem solving, and cognitive development.
For any of these 16 categories of play activities, you can surely come up with additional ideas and favourites for your child.
Variety is a wonderful thing; however, depending on their stages of development and personal traits, some children may ask for or choose the same types of activities for rather long periods of time.
Not to worry. Most children are eventually happy to move on if you make sure many options are available to them.