The Learning Power of Play

Play is the most positive avenue to assist children’s development, thus it’s time we gave playful learning its rightful place within the educational system

As parents, we try to read all the right books, ask the right questions and do our research to make sure our children get everything they need to be healthy, happy and successful. The simple truth however, is that there is  one component of their childhood- crucial to the development of their cognitive skills, social competence, emotional well-being, physical health and the overall trajectory of their lives in many ways – that we tend to overlook, and that is play.

Play is the most natural pathway for a child to explore and learn about themselves, others, and the world around them. We might look at our toddler playing with blocks and think they’re just having fun. They are, but they’re also discovering concepts of math and science, like counting, shapes, balance and gravity – all the while having a good time. Moreover, if they are doing it with a friend they’re building their social skills as well. 

So, play lays the foundation for a child to become curious and excited about learning, and helps develop their social, emotional, cognitive, and physical skills holistically, with the child driving their own learning and developmental gains.

How do children learn through play?

Professor of psychology Kathy Hirsh-Pasek has conducted pioneering research in the field of development of early language and literacy as well as the role of play in learning.  Based on the theory presented by Hirsh-Pasek, Zosh, Golinkoff, Gray, Robb, & Kaufman (2015), optimal learning through play happens when the activity is:

  1. Experienced as joyful
  2. Helps the child find meaning in what they are doing 
  3. Involves active, engaged, minds-on thinking
  4. Involves iterative thinking (e.g., experimentation, hypothesis testing)
  5. Involves social interaction 

When a child chooses to play, they are not thinking “What can I learn from this?”. Yet, they acquire knowledge through these playful interactions with objects and people. For example, children playing hide-and-seek learn about object permanence – they begin to understand that objects continue to exist even when they are not sensed, seen or heard. So, playful experiences are actually powerful learning opportunities. This learning happens across all areas of development – including cognitive, motor, emotional and social skills.

Different types of play-based learnings 

Physical play like running, dancing, jumping, etc. helps foster muscle development. Doing craftwork helps fine-tune their motor skills, develops their visual-spatial skills and allows the child to experience cause and effect. A child who is mixing paint colors learns about creativity, aesthetics and artistry.

Playing with peers helps them build their social skills and regulate their emotions, so that they can later flourish in any kind of personal and professional environment. Dramatic play is especially beneficial for the development of social competence and self-regulation. For instance, role playing (playing house or pretending to be teachers, doctors, shop keepers, etc.) allows children to problem-solve in the face of conflicts, to follow social rules, to express their emotions, and to support the emotional well-being of others.

Creating opportunities for Play-Based Learning at home and in the community

It is important that learning through play happens across all the different spheres of a child’s life – home, school and the wider world. That becomes easy when we look at learning as a process of discovery and joy.  While as parents we may not have much say over the teaching approach at school, there are creative ways in which we can make learning fun for our children at home.

The best way to facilitate play-based learning at home is to let the child play at their own rate based on their own interests. For example, if a child likes the great outdoors, something as simple as a rain puddle can be an opportunity to learn about evaporation. Let the child keep drawing circumferences around the puddle after every 30 minutes to see how the water reduces. If your child likes to stay at home, board games like Monopoly and LIFE will build social skills, sharpen focus and also strengthen their math concepts. Ludo, Battleship, Checkers, Tic Tac Toe are some games where a child has to continually rethink and adjust their strategy based on their opponent’s  move. Plus, learning to follow rules, play as a team, and take turns are important lessons that serve children far beyond their childhood years. 

Takeaways

  • Play represents a child’s way of learning; a vital process by which they grow up. 
  • In play, children can experiment with life and their own reactions to it; recreate the world as they know or shape a new and happy one.
  • Healthily fostered play-based learning can help with physical, social and mental development of a child 
  • Play-based learning can be encouraged by parents at home through observational activities as well as common board games

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